PARIS (AP) — France took a decisive step yesterday toward
banning Islamic head scarves in public schools, with lawmakers
overwhelmingly backing the government’s drive to preserve
French secular traditions from Muslim fundamentalism.

The ban on religious attire in classrooms, which also includes
Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, was approved 494-36
despite protests and criticism from around the world. The measure
goes early next month to the Senate, where there is little
opposition.

The ban was expected to take effect in September. Applying the
law could be the real test: Critics say it’s too vague and
will inflame anti-French feelings among the nation’s large
Muslim minority.

But the bill got far more than the 288 votes needed to pass in
the 577-seat National Assembly — a measure of its popularity
within France, demonstrated repeatedly in public opinion polls.

The Republic and secularism are strengthened,” said Prime
Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, hailing “the magnitude of this
vote.”

French leaders hope the law will quell debate over head scarves
that has divided France since 1989, when two young girls were
expelled from their school in Creil, outside Paris, for wearing the
head coverings. Scores more have been expelled since then.

The bill stipulates that “in schools, junior high schools
and high schools, signs and dress that conspicuously show the
religious affiliation of students are forbidden.” It would
not apply to students in private schools or to French schools in
other countries.

Sanctions for refusing to remove offending apparel would range
from a warning to temporary suspension to expulsion. The government
argues that a law is needed to protect France’s secular
traditions and to ward off rising Islamic fundamentalism.

“This law is for us, indispensable,” said Martine
David, a Socialist lawmaker. Teachers “need a clear judicial
framework.”

Parliament’s majority party, President Jacques
Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement, agreed tomorrow to a
last-minute amendment by the Socialists that calls for a
re-evaluation of the law a year after it takes effect.

Lawmakers want the option, if necessary, of being able to alter
the bill’s language if it proves to be vague, ambiguous or
too difficult to apply. The governing party also added an amendment
to ensure mediation takes place before any sanctions are imposed
— another Socialist suggestion that helped the bill sail
through with its enormous margin of victory.

France has been widely condemned in the Arab and Muslim world
for the planned ban. Thousands of angry protesters from Beirut to
Baghdad have held street demonstrations.

Even non-Muslims entered the debate — many on the side of
opponents. Lord Greville Janner, vice president of the World Jewish
Congress, said yesterday’s parliament vote was “a sad
decision.”

“In a multicultural society, citizens should be free to
wear whatever appropriate religious symbols they wish,” he
said in a statement.

The issue has also proven sharply divisive among Muslims in
France — at 5 million, Western Europe’s largest Muslim
community. Many believe that banning head scarves is a way to
exclude Muslim girls from public schools and further ostracize
their community.

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