French parliament opens debate on headscarf law

The French National Assembly was to open its debate on a controversial law banning the Islamic headscarf from schools, a measure supported by a majority of the public but which has provoked an angry backlash from many Muslims.

The so-called "secularism" law, approved by the cabinet a week ago, states that in schools "the wearing of signs or clothes which conspicuously display a pupil's religious affiliation is prohibited," and applies also to Jewish skull-caps, large Christian crosses and the Sikh turban.

Three days of debate start with an address by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin at 5.00 p.m. (16H00 GMT) Tuesday and nearly 150 deputies have tabled their names to speak. After a vote on February 10 the bill will pass to the upper house, the Senate.

A demonstration by a combined group of Muslims and left-wing rights groups is planned near the Assembly building on Wednesday, with two more protest marches in Paris on February 7 and 14.

As supporters of President Jacques Chirac in the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party dominate both chambers of parliament, the measure is expected to pass without difficulty and be on the statute book by the start of the next school year in September.

However several political and religious figures have expressed serious concerns, arguing that the proposed law is badly-drafted, unworkable and inflammatory. On the left some deputies believe it should be toughened to replace the word "conspicuous" with "visible."

Chirac told the government to draft the law in December after accepting the recommendations of a committee of experts which said the separation of religion and state needed to be reinforced. It followed public outcry over the growing numbers of teenage girls reported to be wearing the Islamic headscarf.

Some 70 percent of the French public say they support the measure, but many among the country's estimated five million Muslims see it as an assault on their freedom of religion and thousands have taken part in demonstrations. On Saturday France's small Sikh community also protested against the law.

Confusion was sown over the law's application after Education Minister Luc Ferry tried to define what constitutes "conspicuous" religious symbols -- including in the list bandanas and even beards if they were deemed to be worn with a religious intent.

While most UMP members have lined up behind the bill, some such as former prime minister Edouard Balladur have said they will abstain, while Francois Bayrou -- 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.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was widely quoted in the French press as 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.

Four members of the Stasi committee whose recommendations led to the law said Tuesday that the spirit of their report had been betrayed because of an excessive focus on the headscarf in schools.

"The political response is absurd and laughable. It feeds the illusion that all we have to do is vote through a law to solve the problem of integration," said historian Rene Remond in Le Monde newspaper.

"The veil is a decoy which draws attention away from the main issue: France's capacity to integrate its new populations and the willingness of these populations to accept the law. We are in a twist about the problem of an ultra-minority," he said.