French Fume Over Proposed Ban on Beards

France's fight to keep religion out of schools has entered new — and some say absurd — territory. Teachers and some religious leaders fumed Wednesday over a government minister's call to ban beards and bandannas from classrooms along with Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses.

Muslim leaders were divided, with some denouncing a curb on facial hair as "total delirium." Others said street protests against the planned law had rattled the government and provoked a crackdown.

Le Monde newspaper devoted its front-page cartoon to the subject, showing a teacher inspecting a student's beard with a magnifying glass, as veiled women with big smiles looked on.

The latest twist in France's controversial plan to ban religious symbols from classrooms came Tuesday, when Education Minister Luc Ferry said the planned ban on religious symbols could also cover facial hair and bandannas, sometimes worn as a discreet alternative to the traditional Muslim head scarf.

Ferry made the comments during a parliamentary debate, where lawmakers questioned whether the wording of the bill was tough enough. They asked if the ban should cover "visible" religious symbols, rather than "conspicuous" symbols, as the draft law states.

Ferry said the existing wording would allow for a broader interpretation of the law.

And so, "if a beard is transformed into a religious sign it will fall under the law," Ferry said. Likewise, a bandanna "will be banned, if young girls present it as a religious sign."

This came as a shock to many in France, particularly to teachers who will be at the front line of policing the new law, expected to be in place for the next school year in September. Lawmakers begin debating the bill Feb. 3.

"Beards? Bandannas?" asked Daniel Robin, national secretary of France's largest union for high school teachers. "What next?"

"This exercise has become absurd. Totally absurd," he said in a telephone interview.

How will teachers identify religious facial hair? Would they reprimand a "religious" bandanna but allow it as a fashion statement?

"I don't know how to respond to these questions," said Robin, who added that boys too lazy to shave never were punished in the past. "Beards were never a problem before. Let's not create new problems."

The Education Ministry did not respond to calls asking for clarification of Ferry's remarks.

Ferry declined to speak to reporters as he left a Cabinet meeting Wednesday. Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope spoke on his behalf, saying only that the new law would be applied "with discretion."

President Jacques Chirac says the law's goal is to protect France's secular underpinnings. However, it also is seen as a way to hold back Islamic fundamentalism in the nation's Muslim community, at an estimated 5 million the largest in Western Europe.

Last weekend, up to 10,000 people — mostly Muslim women in head scarves — marched in Paris to protest the planned law.

The march was organized by the Party of Muslims of France, a small group known for its radical views. The group's president, Mohamed Latreche, called banning of facial hair "total delirium."

"This law has become a farce," he said by telephone. "It's not up to the government to tell us if we can grow beards.

"It proves what we've been saying all along — that this law is anti-Muslim," Latreche said.

Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French council of the Muslim religion, had discouraged Muslims from attending the protest, saying the rally would exacerbate the anti-Muslim climate.

"Now, you see the repercussions," Boubakeur said, adding that a ban on bandannas or beards showed "the government was toughening its position."

"I told people not to demonstrate. I told them they'd scare French people — and this fear would result in France closing the door."