French law bans Sikhs from wearing turbans

Sikh school boys must exchange their turbans for a hair net when a new law banning religious apparel in France's public schools takes effect in September, Education Minister Francois Fillon has said, shocking representatives of the Sikh community.

Muslim girls can only wear bandannas in schools that allow them, according to the minister.

Fillon spoke yesterday after education officials adopted with some misgivings a set of guidelines to help school officials apply the law, which was enacted in March after a marathon parliament debate.

The law forbids conspicuous religious symbols and attire in the classroom such as the Jewish skull cap and large Christian crosses, but it is chiefly aimed at the Muslim head scarf.

Under the guidelines, Muslim girls can only wear bandannas in schools that allow them, Fillon said at a news conference.

Asked about the turbans worn by Sikhs, he said later that an "arrangement" had been made with Sikhs to replace the traditional head gear with hair nets.

"We've come up with an arrangement," Fillon said. "They accept wearing a hair net. It's less aggressive, less showy," he told The Associated Press.

Representatives of the small Sikh community of 5,000-7,000 said they were unaware of any such arrangement. On the contrary, they said, Sikh representatives had received a letter from a counselor to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, dated May 10, that provided "conditional assurance" that Sikh boys could wear turbans in class.

"We were told that we could wear turbans because we never posed a problem," said Karmvir Singh, a Paris member of United Sikhs, expressing surprise.

Sikhs cover their unshorn hair with a turban, compulsory in their religion which originated in northern India in the 15th century.

"A hair net has no place and no meaning," said the director of United Sikhs, Hardyal Singh, based in New York. "It's appalling," he added. A phone call to the prime minister's office was not returned.

The school guidelines go beyond attire to forbid students from refusing certain courses - like physical education or biology - for religious reasons or rejecting professors based on their gender. The guidelines also forbid absences for religious reasons beyond major holidays.