Sea of turbans as Sikhs protest against French ban

A Paris boulevard became a sea of coloured turbans on Saturday as Sikhs from across Europe marched to defend their traditional headgear against a looming French ban on religious symbols in state schools.

Waving French flags and chanting "live and let live", about 3,000 Sikhs turned out to call for turbans to be exempted from the ban due to outlaw symbols such as Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in the strictly secular public schools.

The National Assembly begins debating the ban on Tuesday but the draft text of the law, which outlaws "conspicuous signs" of faith, could be read to include turbans.

Sikhs, of whom about 5,000 live in the Paris region, say turbans and the light scarves that women wear are not religious but practical items meant to cover the hair they never cut.

"My great-grandfather fought to save France in the First World War," said Simran Singh, 14, who wore his ancestor's campaign medals around his neck and carried a poster showing Sikhs with the British Army in France in both world wars.

Waving a French flag, Tirath Singh, seven, said he had no problem wearing his neat blue turban in school but added: "I live in Germany, it's different there."

Sikhs came from Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United States and Canada to march under banners in French, English, German and Punjabi, the language of the 500-year-old monotheist religion from Punjab.

Gurcharan Singh, mayor of the London borough of Ealing, and Indian MP Sardar Simranjit Singh Mann also joined the protest.


Officials have not said if the turban would be banned under the law due to be applied in state primary and secondary schools from September. The ban will not concern private schools.

Jasdev Singh Rai, a London-based human rights activist, said he hoped French officials would issue a directive after the law is passed spelling out that the turban was acceptable.

"We will continue to negotiate and come to a mutually acceptable solution," he said.

Although the ban is aimed at all religious signs, French officials say it is needed to stem a wave of Islamic militancy they see among a minority of France's five million Muslims. Leaders of all religions in France have criticised the ban.

Mann, the Indian MP, said Sikhs did not refuse to join in school activities such as biology classes or physical education that some Muslim girls shunned for religious reasons.

The French Sikhs say many families would rather leave France than have their children bare their heads as the price for continuing their schooling.

Noting Sikhs had no limits about wearing turbans in Britain, Ealing mayor Gurcharan Singh said France should respect the laws in force in another European Union country.

Manwinder Kaur Chadda, 13, from Aachen in Germany, feared the EU connection could work the other way around. "If they start to ban turbans in France, it could spread to other European countries like Germany," she said.