Group Offers Advice on Head Scarves Law

France's biggest Muslim fundamentalist organization says it will advise female students to circumvent a proposed ban on Muslim head scarves by wearing discreet head coverings that can pass as fashion.

The Union for Islamic Organizations of France said girls can tell school officials that the scarves have nothing to do with religion.

"They can say they are wearing this for philosophical reasons, aesthetic reasons," Lhaj-Thami Breze, president of the group said Thursday. "Girls can tell school officials, 'I do this for my beauty.'"

The Muslim organization wasn't alone in looking for ways to counter legislation that would outlaw "conspicuous" religious symbols from France's public schools. Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses also would be banned, but the Islamic head scarf is the target.

The bill, in a third and final day of debate Thursday in the National Assembly, is expected to pass despite dissension and take effect with the new school year in September.

A lawmaker in the European Parliament, Claude Moraes, said he has asked the European Union Commission and the European Council to examine the planned French law for potential conflicts with two EU directives.

In another expression of concern, London Mayor Ken Livingstone wrote to French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin asking him to reconsider the legislation which, the letter says, could inflame tensions "not only in France but also more widely in Europe."

Livingstone appealed to Raffarin "to reconsider restricting fundamental religious freedoms in France through the proposed legislation."

Among issues that lawmakers have been grappling with is the language in the bill. A compromise reached between the opposition Socialists and the governing UMP party would allow lawmakers to review the law in a year and replace, if needed, "conspicuous" signs with "visible." Socialists believe the word "visible" is less ambiguous than "conspicuous."

Moraes, a Londoner in the EU Parliament's Socialist group, said he wanted the legal aspects examined to see if the is in conflict with European directives on employment and race equality, adopted last year.

"This law has unintended consequences. It has a blanket effect," Moraes said in a telephone interview.

President Jacques Chirac has said the law is needed to protect secularism, a fundamental principle that underpins French society.

"I'm not against secularism," said Moraes. "I sympathize with the promotion of secularism so that you have equality of opportunity. But I believe this (bill) has unintended consequences of doing the opposite."

Critics say a ban would stigmatize the Muslim population and fails to address the real problem: their integration into the Roman Catholic mainstream.

Moraes asked the European bodies to study whether the proposed ban conflicts with a directive that bars religious discrimination in employment — in the case of teachers who might decide to wear head scarves — and a directive that prevents discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity in the public and private sectors.

Moraes' particular concern is for Sikhs, a small community numbering only 5,000-7,000 in France, whose turbans could be considered "conspicuous."

The UOIF, the Muslim organization, maintains that the ban would not apply to anything worn for cultural or fashion purposes, so girls will be encouraged to come up with nonreligious head coverings.

"The law doesn't mean the scarf is banned, just conspicuous religious signs," said Breze. "We encourage girls to go to school but adapt their scarf."

Breze suggested discreet bandanas or even small bonnets that cover the hair but not the neck.

"We don't want girls to be deprived of an education," the UOIF president said.

"If this doesn't work, we'll go to court," he added. "We have full confidence in the justice system of our country."