The French government, in crisis mode, on Sunday called for the release of two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq by Islamic militants demanding that Paris rescind a ban on headscarves in state schools.
French Interior Minister de Villepin with Muslim members of French society
"Together we ask for their release," French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said after meeting with Muslim leaders, addressing "all those who have some kind of authority or responsibility for the fate" of the two newsmen.
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin cancelled a trip to the south of France to hold urgent talks with de Villepin, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, and Culture and Communications Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres early Sunday. Raffarin was due to preside over a second round of ministerial talks before meeting with French President Jacques Chirac later in the day.
Georges Malbrunot, right, of Le Figaro newspaper, and French radio reporter Christian Chesnot, of Radio France Internationale.
"France taken hostage," read the front page of the Sunday paper Le Journal du Dimanche after the confirmation of the kidnapping of Radio France correspondent Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper.
Headscarf ban "attack on Islam"
The two men went missing on August 20, the day they were to have left Baghdad for the central holy city of Najaf, then the scene of fierce fighting between US forces and Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada Sadr.
Late Saturday, Arabic-language Al-Jazeera television broadcast images of Chesnot and Malbrunot along with an ultimatum from the Islamic Army in Iraq, the same group that killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni after kidnapping him.
The group gave Paris 48 hours to meet its demands, describing the ban on the Islamic veil in state schools as "an injustice and an attack on the Islamic religion," the Qatar-based network reported, citing its "own sources in Iraq."
France's Muslim leaders condemn move
Dalil Boubakeur, center, head of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, arrives for a meeting at the French Interior Ministry Sunday.
The leader of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), Dalil Boubakeur, said he was "shattered" by the Islamic militants' "unworthy and odious blackmail". "The Muslim community must set itself apart from these schemes that are reprehensible in the eyes of Islam and give no indication that these people are acting in their interest," Boubakeur said ahead of his talks with de Villepin.
The CFCM is the first officially recognized body for France's Muslim community, which at an estimated five million is the largest in Europe. CFCM Vice President Mohamed Bechari urged the kidnappers to release Chesnot and Malbrunot, saying the hostage-taking would not help resolve either the headscarf issue or the unstable situation in Iraq.
Editors at the news organizations where the two men work expressed concern about their fate but said they were relieved the pair were alive.
French headscarf ban inflames passions
Iraq's main Sunni Muslim religious organization appealed for the release of the journalists, but also called on France to reconsider its decision to ban conspicuous" religious insignia, including headscarves, from the classroom. "In the name of the Committee of Ulemas we urge the kidnappers to release the two journalists," said Sheikh Abdessatar Abdelzhawad, a member of the committee, speaking on Al-Jazeera.
The controversial French law, due to go into effect this week when classes resume, prohibits the wearing of "conspicuous" religious insignia -- Islamic veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses -- in state schools and universities.
The government introduced the law to stop what it saw as an increasingly radical stance by some students to assert their religious identity in schools in violation of a principle that such institutions should be strictly secular.
Muslim women in Indonesia protest France's controversial government plan to ban Muslim head scarves and other religious apparel in public schools.
But the legislation was widely criticized in many countries in the Arab world, which charged that it was an example of blatant discrimination against Muslims. Demonstrators have marched against the headscarf law in Bahrain, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon and in France itself, where a section of the Muslim community campaigned against the new regulation.
Kidnappings of journalists and other foreigners have become common in Iraq as insurgents attempt to force countries to withdraw their troops from the war-ravaged country or extort money.
However, both Chesnot and Malbrunot's employers and Sunni Muslim scholars had earlier expressed faith that if they had been kidnapped, they would be safe because France had staunchly opposed the US-led war against Iraq.