School expels girls for wearing headscarves

A French school yesterday expelled two girls for wearing Muslim headscarves in the first such case since a ban on religious symbols was imposed in state schools last month.

The two seventh-grade pupils, aged 12 and 13, had refused to remove their headscarves since school resumed in September, despite repeated meetings teachers held with them and their parents, said the school principal in Mulhouse, eastern France. "The disciplinary council has decided to definitively exclude the two pupils from the school," Michelle Feder-Cunin said.

France imposed the ban in September to reassert the neutrality of its state schools and counter what teachers said was rising Islamist radicalism reflected in the wearing of headscarves, denial of the Holocaust and attacks on Jewish schoolmates.

The law barred what it called conspicuous signs of faith such as the headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses but left some leeway - such as discreet jewellery - because a complete ban would have violated European human rights laws.

The French education minister, Fran├žois Fillon, said about 70 girls around the country risked expulsion by refusing to bare their heads despite warnings from school officials.

Three Sikh boys in a Paris suburb are also fighting the ban because it would mean taking off their turbans, he said, adding: "The law applies to everybody."

Pupils expelled from school can either attend private schools, which are fee-paying, or continue their education through correspondence courses.

Lazhar Fortas, a French citizen of Algerian origin whose daughter Khouloude was one of the two expelled, told Reuters he could not understand how the school could shut her out.

"She was a top student last year, first in her class, she had no problems, she went to gym class, did everything, was even her class delegate," he said.