New ruling on headscarves angers Muslims in France

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NINE French Muslim associations have protested against 'the climate of intolerance which is developing in our country' after the Education Ministry issued instructions to headteachers to discourage Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in state schools.

The initiative by Francois Bayrou, the centrist Education Minister, follows five years in which the wearing of the veil has become a recurring issue in the state lycees. Issued last weekend, the instructions encourage school principals to dissuade pupils from wearing signs of their religious faith while insisting they should do nothing to attract media attention. Mr Bayrou's new measure comes as the French government is increasingly worried at signs of a rise of Islamic fundamentalism in France, mainly spilling over from the civil strife in Algeria.

In 1989 when Ernest Cheniere, the Caribbean head of a lycee in Creil north of Paris who has since become a Gaullist member of the National Assembly, first banned scarf-wearing girls in his school, only 20 girls were reckoned to be attending schools in Muslim dress. At the end of June when schools broke up for the summer, there were more than 700.

Although the wearing of scarves has touched on a number of different Muslim communities, from Turks to North Africans, the increase has coincided with the rise of fundamentalism in Algeria. In several cases, banning girls from attending school in scarves has created a dispute with local immigrant bodies; in others, headteachers have preferred to turn a blind eye.

Mr Bayrou's memorandum, appealing to principals 'to convince rather than force', said 'I ask you to reject any mediatisation. No pictures. No statements by you or your staff'. The statement by Muslim associations on Tuesday said the ban on the veil could result in Muslims 'pulling their children out of school to conduct their education themselves'. That, they said, could create 'a risk of exclusion which nobody wants in our (Muslim) community'.

Last weekend, the city of Pau in south-west France suffered a wave of violence in a suburb largely inhabited by immigrants after a retired soldier shot dead a Moroccan youth who, he said, had tried to steal his van.

Although the suspect was arrested and charged, two nights of fighting with riot police followed in which cars were set alight and several people were injured. The incidents were similar to many which punctuated French summers in the beginning of the 1990s.

Andre Labarrere, Pau's Socialist mayor, blamed the tension in Ousse-les-Bois on 'manipulation' by Islamic fundamentalists.

A suspected bomb exploded early this morning in the headquarters of the Paris education authorities, causing severe damage, AFP reports. Windows were blown out and vehicles parked in the street, the rue Curial in the centre of the capital, were wrecked. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

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