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Muslims protest at headscarf ban

France has grappled with the scarf issue for nearly 15 years.
France has grappled with the scarf issue for nearly 15 years.

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France debates whether to ban blatant religious symbols in public schools. CNN's Jim Bittermann reports (December 17)
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PARIS, France (Reuters) -- Demonstrators gathered in cities across France on Saturday to protest against a looming ban on Islamic headscarves in state schools, while Muslims in the Middle East and London also challenged the controversial move.

In Paris and other French cities, protests were scheduled for Saturday against the law proposed by President Jacques Chirac that would ban Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from state schools.

The demonstrations in France were set to go ahead under close police surveillance after the government warned on Friday of attempts to stir up radical opposition to the ban.

Protests began first in Jordan and London. Dozens of veiled women protested outside the French embassy in Amman, holding up banners that read: "My veil is my freedom" and "Banning hijab is a confusion of freedom."

In London, about 50 demonstrators -- many wearing headscarves -- gathered outside the French Embassy to reject the ban in a protest the Muslim Association of Great Britain said it hoped would attract up to 3,000 people.

On Friday, French government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope defended the ban as an effort to uphold France's commitment to keep church and state separate, and hit out at what he said were attempts to stir up radical opposition to the measure.

Many French politicians and voters support the planned law as a bulwark against Islamist influence among Muslim immigrants. It has divided opinion among France's five million Muslims, and been criticized by Muslims abroad.

In Amman, Mona Abu Dabbus, an activist in Jordan's Islamic Action Front, who took part in the protest told Reuters Jordanian women were protesting in solidarity with their sisters in France.

"France is a democratic country and democratic countries give the citizens the right to practice their religion," she said. "My hijab is my right and my freedom. It gives me the freedom to do what I want."

Dalil Boubakeur, chairman of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), has described the planned march in Paris as a "very dangerous" measure that could frighten voters two months before regional elections are held across France.

Other Muslims feel unfairly targeted by Chirac's plan. A pro-headscarf march in Paris last month rallied more than 3,000 people, many of them veiled young women.

Chirac's center-right government wants to rush the anti-headscarf law through parliament so debate starts before the regional elections and the ban is effective by September.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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