Schoolgirls play by the rules as headscarf ban comes into force

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The Independent Online

The massed media at the lyceé gates waited impatiently yesterday morning for a girl to turn up wearing a headscarf.

The massed media at the lyceé gates waited impatiently yesterday morning for a girl to turn up wearing a headscarf.

The pupils who poured into the school in Aubervilliers, north of Paris, on the first day of the school year appeared to come from every race and religion. Many were of north African origin, but there were also ethnic French, Africans, Turks, east Europeans, Vietnamese. Whatever the troubled inner suburbs of Paris may be, they are not single-race ghettoes.

Finally, three girls wearing headscarves appeared in the distance. The media rustled its notebooks, microphones and cameras. The girls immediately took off the scarves, but whether it was to avoid media attention or to conform with the new law banning "religious symbols" in schools was unclear. Like many pupils and teachers all over France yesterday, they preferred to smile quietly and say nothing.

The expected confrontation between Muslim pupils and the law, which took effect for the first time yesterday, failed to materialise. Far from inflaming the situation, the demands made by a radical Islamic group holding two French hostages in Iraq generated an impressive, nationwide solidarity and calm.

There were a few isolated cases of girls who refused to take off their scarves in Strasbourg and Paris. They were taken to a separate rooms for "counselling" and not allowed to join their classes, but were not suspended or expelled.

Last weekend, the hostage-takers demanded the repeal of the law, which they described as an insult to Islam. They implied the journalists, Chritian Chesnot of Radio France and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Ouest-France, would be murdered unless Paris gave way.

Intensive efforts were continuing yesterday to free the hostages, including a visit to Baghdad by senior members of the French Muslim community. The French 24-hour news channel, LCI, reported last night that the journalists had been transferred to an "intermdiary group" and their release could be imminent. The French embassy in Baghdad said earlier that it had received word that they were still alive and being well-treated.

The hostage-takers have been condemned across the Muslim world andunanimously by Islamic leaders in France. Even groups which had urged pupils to defy the ban said that, in the light of the hostage crisis, everyone should obey the law.

One girl who was willing to talk briefly in Aubervilliers yesterday, Nadia, 16, said she had considered wearing a scarf to school, even though she had not done so last year. "There were a few of us who wanted to do it to show that we were proud of our religion but, because of what is happening in Iraq, we decided not to," she said. "We would have seemed to be on the same side as the people holding the journalists."

All over France, there were reports of girls arriving at school wearing headscarves and taking them off as they entered the grounds or when they were asked to do so by a member of staff. At Bischeim, in the suburbs of Strasbourg, two 18-year-old girls tried to get around the law by wearing wigs. They were allowed into school.

The French government says the law is not anti-Islamic, or anti-religion, but intended to guarantee the "secular" status of the French republic and its state schools.

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