French Parliament Votes to Ban Signs of Faith

France's National Assembly voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to banish religious emblems from state schools, a measure meant to keep tensions between Muslim and Jewish minorities out of public classrooms.

Deputies voted 494 to 36 to ban Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses and to expel pupils who insisted on wearing them. It will not apply to private schools.

The government says the ban does not single out any religion, but cabinet ministers acknowledge its main targets are the Islamic headscarves and anti-Semitic remarks from Muslim pupils that teachers say have become more frequent.

"After this debate and the magnitude of this vote, both the republic and its secularism have been reinforced," Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told deputies.

"What is at issue here is the clear affirmation that public school is a place for learning and not for militant activity or proselytism," Assembly Speaker Jean-Louis Debre said.

It was the first reading of the bill, which must go to the Senate and then back to the National Assembly for final approval in mid-March, which now should be just a formality.

The key passage of the law, which schools would apply from September, reads: "In primary and secondary state schools, wearing signs and clothes that conspicuously display the pupil's religious affiliation is forbidden."

"This will not solve the problem," said Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the large Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF). "Who will decide what's conspicuous and what's not?"

He said the UOIF would urge schoolgirls to opt for discrete head coverings such as bandannas or caps and hoped these would be accepted at school. "It's unfortunate that the whole nation is so preoccupied with a simple piece of cloth," he remarked.

Nicholas Perruchot, a centrist UDF deputy who voted against the bill, said: "The law will not be applicable and the disputes will not diminish."

The ban has wide public support in France, which has the largest Muslim and Jewish minorities in western Europe.

Leaders of France's 5 million Muslims denounce it as discriminatory and likely to stigmatize veiled schoolgirls. It has provoked criticism from Muslim and Christian leaders abroad, including Pope John Paul II.

Jewish leaders have been split over the ban, with those in favor seeing it as a bulwark against the militant Islam they see spreading in poor neighborhoods with mixed populations.

Lord Greville Janner, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, said in London it was a sad decision which "disgracefully punished the entire Muslim population and other religious communities."

Before the vote, Education Minister Luc Ferry said France had witnessed a "spectacular rise in racism and anti-Semitism in the last three years" and the ban would help to keep classes from dividing into "militant religious communities."

He said the law would also make clear pupils could not object to or skip classes for religious reasons.

Teachers have complained in recent years of problems with Muslim pupils who interrupt history classes to deny the Nazis slaughtered Jews, boycott classes on human reproduction because they are "immodest," or refuse to attend physical education.

It was not clear if France would also ban Sikh turbans, which the country's 5,000 Sikhs say are not religious symbols.

In Kuala Lumpur, about 40 supporters of the fundamentalist Islamic PAS, the biggest opposition party in mainly Muslim Malaysia, protested against the law outside the French embassy chanting "Long live Islam" and "Crush the infidels."