School ban on scarves wins praise

Paris, France -- A year after France banned ostentatious display of religious symbols in schools, a senior official said Tuesday that the law had reduced tension in state schools and was a success.

But a Muslim group that supports young women who defied the law by wearing veils said the new regulations had claimed what it called 806 victims.

Hanifa Cherifi, inspector general at the Education Ministry, said the law reconfirmed the separation of church and state as an essential rule. After the stormy debate over the law, she said, France now understands its Muslim population better and is better able to distinguish between radicals and moderates.

"In terms of the numbers, the result is quite positive," Cherifi said on Radio France Internationale. "Beyond that, the general atmosphere is quite positive and satisfactory for all, both the schools and the pupils. We are quite pleased.

"Remember what it was like before this law. For the past 15 years, we had permanent tensions, sessions in administrative courts, headlines that gave France a terrible image."

The March 15 Freedom Committee, a Muslim group supporting schoolgirls who defied the law, issued a dissenting report about "victims" of the new policy.

It said 47 had been expelled from school and 533 had agreed under pressure to shed their head scarves and were now "in a deplorable psychological state." The report was detailed in the daily newspaper Le Monde.

To continue wearing their head scarves, others had dropped out of school, switched to correspondence courses or moved to such countries as Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey where they are not banned in schools, the report said.

France passed the law last March and applied it at the reopening of school in September to check what teachers said was the growing influence of radical Islamic groups among Muslim youths.

Some Islamic groups opposed the law, which includes Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses but was mainly aimed at Muslim head scarves, but kept quiet when it was applied as a sign of support for two French hostages in Iraq.

Cherifi questioned the committee's figures and cited Education Ministry statistics showing that 639 pupils - "and not just veiled young girls," she said - came to state schools in September wearing banned clothing.

Education Minister Fran├žois Fillon said in January that 48 pupils had been banned for wearing religious symbols, including 3 Sikh boys who refused to remove their turbans.

Cherifi said that reaffirming the official separation of church and state, which Muslim activists have criticized as too strict, had helped France get through the latest head-scarf controversy.

"I have 15 years of experience with the head scarf issue and we have had tenser periods than this," she said.

Contrary to warnings the Muslims would revolt if head scarves were banned, most have accepted the policy, she said.

"We have a more realistic view of this population now," she said. "We can identify the radical current, and the moderate currents."