Next Target in the French Headgear Debate: The Bandana

And now for the bandana ban.

The proposed French law prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in public schools was initially interpreted to include Islamic headscarves, Jewish yarmulkes and large Christian crosses. Those were the three items singled out last month in a speech by President Jacques Chirac and in a report by a blue-ribbon commission on religion and the state.

Then the issue of the turban worn by Sikhs was raised, as France's tiny Sikh community protested that its boys would quit school before removing their turbans.

Today, Luc Ferry, the Minister of National Education, went further. He told the National Assembly's legal affairs committee that any girl's bandana that is considered a religious sign (as opposed to a fashion statement, presumably) will also be banned.

During the two-hour debate on the proposed ban, lawmakers wanted to know why the draft law was worded to ban "ostensibly" religious symbols and not everything that is "visible."

Mr. Ferry explained that the wording afforded the state the ability to broadly interpret what constitutes a religious symbol and prevent the possible subversion of the law. That's where the bandana came in.

"If we had chosen the word `visible,' we could have seen the appearance of other signs,' " Mr. Ferry said.

For that reason, he explained, "The bandana, if it is presented by young girls as a religious sign, will be forbidden."

He also contended that hairstyles or the wearing of certain colors could be a source of manipulation. "Signs could be invented using simple hairiness or a color," he said. "Creativity is infinite in this regard."

In his testimony, Xavier Darcos, the deputy minister, agreed. "It's a question of our will to produce a clear, useful and general text that avoids diverse precedents and individual improvisation," he said. "It was quite necessary to act and not to restrain religious freedom."

Last April, Mr. Ferry, a philosopher and political scientist by education, came out publicly against proposals emanating from the parliament, to pass a law banning religious symbols in schools, saying it could be judged unconstitutional.

Today, he called the Muslim veil "a militant sign that calls for militant counter-signs."

By contrast, the turban of the Sikhs, if it were to remain "discreet" would be allowed, he said.

Neither man gave a definition of what constitutes a religious bandana, how teachers would decide what was an "ostensible" sign of religion or how the new law would be implemented.

Asked to define a bandana, an official assigned to deal with press inquiries in the ministry, said: "There is no definition. It will be left to the discretion of the heads of schools."

The Larousse dictionary defines a bandana as "a small cotton square of lively colors, usually worn as a scarf."

Asked about the bandana, Catherine Colonna, Mr. Chirac's spokesman, said, "The future law must not allow people to bypass it the way certain individuals and groups already seem certain to do." She stressed that dialogue between school administrators and students would be required before punitive steps are taken.

Indeed, in an interview in today's issue of the popular tabloid Le Parisien, Mohamed Bechary, president of the National Federation of Muslims of France, a large Muslim organization, asked, "{Who will define what is ostensible and what is not?" He said he recommended "the discreet wearing of the scarf be it a bandana, a cap or a hat."

Other leaders of local Muslim communities in France have also advised female students to find ways around the ban by wearing a head covering that could be interpreted as a fashion statement rather than a symbol of Islam.

Despite the existence for a national curriculum for all French public schools, there is no national dress code. It is left up to the discretion of each school to decide whether to allow such displays as body piercing, baseball caps, visible thongs or spaghetti straps, for example.

As for religious symbols, since 1992 the wearing of head scarves has been allowed only if it is not "aggressive or proselytizing." But individual school directors decide.

In its current draft form, the law states that in public schools, "Signs and dress that ostensibly show the religious affiliation of students are forbidden."

Underscoring the difficulty France has in explaining the importance of upholding the ideal of the republican secular state, even Pope John Paul II has jumped into the fray. He told Vatican diplomats last week that religious freedom in Europe was endangered be people seeking to ban religion from the public sphere. He did not specifically mention France.

In a statement in Wednesday's Le Monde published on Tuesday, Bernard Stasi, who led the French commission proposing the legal ban, dared to criticize the Pope. "I regret that the sovereign pontiff is misinformed," Mr. Stasi said. He added that instead of giving arguments to "fundamentalists of all colors by evoking the threat of a campaign against religious freedom," the Catholic Church should help Islam in a brotherly way to find its place in secular France.`

As fashion, bandanas in France have tended to follow the American lead. Traditionally red and white or blue and white print and a symbol of the American West, they became an accessory among rap musicians and in inner city street culture some years ago.

Although some ready-to-wear designers have used bandanas in their shows over the years, such common street fashion has not been on display in the current haute couture shows in Paris. The long-haired fashion designer John Galliano, however, wears a signature bandana tied pirate-style at the back of his neck.