French cabinet approves headscarf bill

The French cabinet on Wednesday approved a controversial bill to ban the Islamic headscarf from schools, opening the way for its passage through parliament and adoption by the start of the next school year.

Stating that in schools "the wearing of signs or clothes which conspicuously display a pupil's religious affiliation is prohibited," the bill will be presented next Tuesday to the National Assembly, parliament's lower house, which will cast its first vote on February 10.

President Jacques Chirac, who chaired Wednesday's weekly cabinet meeting, said the bill "clearly reaffirms the neutrality of our state schools. It is obviously not intended to outlaw signs of religious affiliation worn in everyday life.

"The decision to ban conspicuous signs (of religion) in school is a decision that respects our history, our customs and our values. To do nothing would be irresponsible. It would be wrong," the president was quoted by his spokesman as saying.

Intended to ensure a rigid enforcement of the French principle of "secularism" - the separation of religion and state - the law has prompted an angry reaction from many Muslims who say their freedom of religion is under attack. Thousands have demonstrated in France as well as abroad.

The bill is expected to pass without a hitch through parliament where Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has a clear majority, but several senior political and religious figures have raised concerns, arguing that it is badly-drafted, unworkable and inflammatory.

Following the guidance of an official report into secularism presented to Chirac in December, the law will prohibit not just Islamic headscarves but also Jewish skull-caps and "large" Christian crosses.

But Education Minister Luc Ferry, who drew up the text, created confusion last week when he added that bandannas and beards could also be included if they were worn with a clearly religious intent.

Francois Bayrou, a former education minister who heads the UMP's coalition partner the Union for French Democracy (UDF), said he would oppose the law because "the disadvantages outweigh the advantages."

"We have just given the Islamists and the militant fundamentalists a massive gift of gold," he said on RTL radio.

Foreign minister Dominique de Villepin was widely quoted in the French press last week warning the government that the law would damage French relations with predominantly Muslim nations in the Middle East and Asia.

However the foreign ministry officially denied he made the remarks.Several politicians have warned that the controversy over the bill is playing into the hands of the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is hoping to make big electoral gains at regional elections in March.

Noting that the law was originally intended to cut support for Le Pen's National Front (FN) by taking a firm line on Islamic radicals, the pro-government Le Figaro newspaper warned Wednesday that the policy appeared to be backfiring.

"It has to be doubted whether the daily sight on television of young girls raising their fists and bearded men shouting anti-French slogans will do anything to hold back Le Pen. In politics as elsewhere, the road to hell is paved with good intentions," the paper said.