Ban on veils may spread to hospitals

As France's national assembly neared the end of a four-day debate on a ban on religious emblems in state schools, the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said "similar legislation" was planned to stop hospital patients refusing to be treated by male doctors.

MPs will vote on Tuesday on the so-called headscarf ban, aimed at protecting the strictly secular French republic - and in particular the school system - from a perceived rise in Muslim activism. The bill is expected to win a large majority.

Health administrators have reported cases of Muslim husbands who would rather their wives were denied treatment than be examined by a man. Women in labour have refused epidurals because the anaesthetist was male.

The government is also considering a "secularism charter" for other public institutions. These include town halls, where Muslim women must remove their veils for official ceremonies, and public swimming pools, where Muslim women have demanded segregated bathing.

Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, yesterday joined critics of the veil ban.

In a letter to Mr Raffarin, he said the ban may "inflame current tensions between communities and encourage attacks on minority communities".