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French Parliament Votes for Headscarf Ban in Schools

An overwhelming majority of French parliamentarians voted to ban conspicuous religious symbols in state-run schools Tuesday. The law, which is sure to be passed by the Senate, will be effective next school year.

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Women with headscarves are a common sight in Europe.

Conspicuous religious symbols have no place in state-run schools, according to French President Jacques Chirac. After months of debate on whether Muslim headscarves compromise France's strict form of secularism, 494 parliamentarians in France's lower house ascribed to Chirac's view when they voted Tuesday in favor of a ban on Muslim headscarves, Jewish skull caps and large crucifixes from state schools.

Only 36 parliamentarians from the Green and Communist parties opposed the controversial legislation, which they said discriminated against Muslims.

"What is at issue here is the clear affirmation that public school is a place for learning and not for militant activity or proselytism," Parliamentary Speaker Jean-Louis Debré, a member of the governing UMP, said.

The bill will move on to the Senate for debate in March and then return to the lower house of parliament for final approval, which is now only a formality. It will take effect by September, the beginning of the new school year, when students at France's schools and universities will only be allowed to wear discreet signs of their religions, such as small pendants and crosses.

The law will initially be in place for one year, after which it will be reviewed.

Protests from ethnic minorities, teachers

Polls show that nearly 70 percent of the French public support the bill as apposed to only around 40 percent of the country's 5 million Muslims.

Muslims and evven Sikhs -- who fear they will be prohibited from wearing turbans -- have staged numerous demonstrations in past weeks against the bill. Religious leaders have warned the bill will have negative fallouts.

The French Council of Muslims published an open letter warning against creating a law that would discriminate against Muslims. France's head rabbi, Joseph Sitruk criticized that the ban would prevent successful religious integration.

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

He said the UOIF would urge schoolgirls to opt for discreet
head gear 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 said.

Three of the country's four teachers unions have also cautioned that the law would stigmatize students, and some Muslim leaders have said they would have to open private schools for girls who are expelled from state-run ones.

Separation between church and state

Kopftuch Frankreich Jacques Chirac

President Jacques Chirac (center) is framed by French Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk (left) and Paris Mosque rector Dalil Boubakeur after his speech at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Dec.17 in which Chirac said he would ask parliament to pass a law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious insignia in public schools.

In a speech on the subject in December, President Chirac recalled the fundaments of French republicanism that require the state to remain neutral in religious questions. Secularism has a been a basic principle of French thought since 1905, when church and state were officially separated.

In recent years, headscarves have been a recurring, divisive issue in numerous European countries. Last year, Germany's highest court ruled that school authorities in Stuttgart had been wrong to bar a Muslim woman from a teaching job because she insisted on wearing a headscarf in the classroom. But the court also stated that, although Germany's constitution didn't forbid wearing headscarves in state-run schools, individual states were free to impose such bans.

Since the ruling, politicians in seven of Germany's 16 states have said they would draft bills, which, if passed, would prohibit teachers from wearing headscarves in state-run schools.

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