French public schools re-opened on Thursday, the first day an official ban on headscarves and other religious symbols in schools went into effect. The ban, which was passed by the National Assembly last March, prompted protests from France's sizeable Muslim community. On Aug. 19, an extremist group in Iraq took up the issue, capturing two French journalists and demanding that the ban be overturned in exchange for their release.
French school officials on Thursday expressed their hope that the spirit of national unity -- which has united the country, including Muslims, since the crisis began -- would prevail.
Officials appeal for unity, Muslims express outrage
French Education Minister Francois Fillon said schools would open "in the spirit of fraternity."
"Tomorrow, all children -- black and white, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish or agnostic -- will sit at the same school desks and show that the state schools are one of the great strengths of our country," he said after a weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Fillon seemed optimistic France's 12 million school children would express the same unity that has brought the country together, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, despite their differences over the ban.
France's Muslim community has been particularly vocal critic and active in efforts its to secure the hostage's release.
On Wednesday evening, Mohamed Bechari, President of the National Muslim Federation of France, called on all French Muslims to distance themselves from "such actions which are contrary to the Islamic faith." His organization also sent a five-strong delegation to Jordan with the ultimate goal of travelling on to Baghdad.
French work to secure release
French officials are likewise working hard to secure the hostage's release. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier embarked on a tour of Muslim countries to ask for help explaining the purpose of the ban, and General Philippe Rondot, a Middle East specialist, travelled to Iraq to make contact with the captors.
Also in Iraq, the French ambassador, Bernard Bajolet, met with leaders of the Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni clerical organization that has been trying to negotiate the hostage's release.The fate of the hostages, Christian Chesnot of Radio France International and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro, is not yet known. The captor's ultimatum expired on Thursday evening, but was extended for an additional 24 hours.