French PM Presses on with Law Banning Muslim Veils

rench Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin vowed on Saturday to press on with plans to introduce a law that would ban Muslim headscarves in state schools despite growing opposition from Muslim protesters and some politicians.

"There will be a law on secularity," Raffarin told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in an interview released before its publication on Sunday.

Pledging to show the government was united over the planned law by presenting it in parliament himself next week, he said: "It is important to show that the Republic...will not let itself be eaten away from within."

If passed by parliament, the law would bar Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in state schools from September.

Raffarin, who has been under pressure on several fronts this week, took a firm line over the planned law two months before regional elections widely seen as a test of his performance.

The law has been increasingly under fire since President Jacques Chirac proposed it last month, saying he wanted to protect the secular nature of the state. It is also seen as a move to resist Islamic fundamentalism among French Muslims.

It has sparked protests from Islamic leaders and criticism from other religions in France, as well as provoking a barbed reference from Pope John Paul to "some European countries" that endangered religious freedom.

The debate also took an unexpected turn when Education Minister Luc Ferry said this week beards and bandannas could also be outlawed if they are seen to be statements of faith.


Raffarin left no doubt about his intentions after a week in which he has refused to budge on his reform policies, despite a march through Paris against the planned law and strikes by rail, power and health workers over other government plans.

"We will say clearly that in school all symbols that ostensibly show a religious affiliation are forbidden," he told Journal du Dimanche. "The Republic must defend itself and take measures to make itself respected."

"Our vision of secularity is not anti-religious but one of the neutrality of the state and of the spirit of tolerance. This includes the law (on religious symbols in schools)," he added.

Raffarin said the law, which he will present to parliament on February 3, would consist of two articles and an introduction. He confirmed plans to have the law in place before the start of the next school year in September.

Raffarin also dismissed what he said was a malicious misinterpretation by French media of comments this week by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Villepin was quoted by radio and television as telling cabinet colleagues the planned law had put Paris in "a very delicate situation on the international scene." Raffarin said Villepin was not known to oppose Chirac on the planned law.