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Headscarf protests put on hold

FRANCE

Calm has reigned in most French schools since the controversial law banning conspicuous religious signs in public establishments came into force at the start of the new academic year.

Education minister Francois Fillon said that only 635 pupils turned up at the beginning of term wearing Muslim headscarves, compared to 1,500 during the whole of last year. Only 101 refused to remove their scarves, most of them in Strasburg, Lille and Creteil, just outside Paris. "Secularism has won, because the expected difficulties did not appear," Mr Fillon said in an interview with Le Parisien.

Muslim groups who oppose the law had all said before the return to school that the new rules must be obeyed. They are keeping a low profile while the French hostages in Iraq, journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, remain captive.

A hotline for Muslim girls set up in July in Alsace has refused to disclose the number of calls it has received so as not to jeopardise the lives of the hostages. The kidnappers demanded initially that France repeal the religious signs legislation.

But the Union of French Muslim Organisations said it is upset that some headteachers insist that pupils remove all head coverings. Pointing out that the rules allow discreet religious signs, UOIF president Lahj Thami Breze said he hoped for a gesture from the French government in return for the Muslim community's solidarity over the hostages.

If schools do not lift their ban on all head coverings, Thami Breze said he would take the case to the European Court of Justice if necessary.

The government has said the law will be reviewed at the end of the school year, but Hanifa Cherifi, the education ministry official monitoring its application, insisted that if bandannas or other items were worn as religious substitutes for the headscarf, they would still be banned.

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