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French Official Talks of Beard Ban

From Times Wire Services

France’s fight to keep religion out of schools has entered new -- some say absurd -- territory.

Teachers and some religious leaders fumed Wednesday over a government minister’s call to ban beards and bandannas from classrooms along with Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses.

France’s small Sikh community, meanwhile, was hopeful that its boys could continue to wear turbans to school after explaining to officials that the headgear was a practical covering, not a religious symbol.

On Tuesday, Education Minister Luc Ferry said the planned ban on religious symbols could also apply to facial hair and bandannas, the latter sometimes worn as an alternative to the traditional Muslim head scarf.

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In a parliamentary debate, he said that “if a beard is transformed into a religious sign, it will fall under the law.” Likewise, he said, a bandanna “will be banned, if young girls present it as a religious sign.”

This came as a shock to many in France, particularly teachers, who will be at the front line of policing the new law, which is expected to be in place for the school year that begins in September. Lawmakers begin debating the bill Feb. 3.

“Beards? Bandannas?” said Daniel Robin, national secretary of France’s largest union for high school teachers. “What next?”

“This exercise has become absurd. Totally absurd,” he said in a telephone interview. Robin said he could not say how facial hair could be identified as religious or not, or whether a bandanna presented as a fashion statement would pass muster.

“Beards were never a problem before. Let’s not create new problems,” he said.

The Education Ministry did not respond to calls asking for clarification of Ferry’s remarks. Bernard Accoyer, deputy parliamentary leader of President Jacques Chirac’s center-right coalition, said Wednesday that beards and bandannas would not be outlawed, despite Ferry’s comments.

Chirac says the law’s goal is to protect France’s secular underpinnings. However, it also is seen as a way to hold back Islamic fundamentalism in the nation’s Muslim community -- at an estimated 5 million the largest in Western Europe.

Sikh leaders, meanwhile, reported encouraging talks with senior officials aimed at explaining why their community’s turbans should not be banned.

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Sikhs, about 5,000 of whom live in the Paris area, say turbans are a practical covering for the hair they never cut, not an expression of faith.


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