Islamic radicals holding two French journalists hostage in Iraq gave France another 24 hours on Monday to agree to their demands to reverse a ban on Muslim head scarves in public schools, the al-Jazeera television network reported.
Al-Jazeera aired a tape of the two journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, urging the French people to hold protests to persuade their government to retract the head scarf law and warning of their possible execution. The first deadline for action expired Monday.
Chesnot called on President Jacques Chirac to "retract the veil ban immediately, and I call on French people to protest the veil ban. It is a wrong and unjust law, and we may die at any time," he said.
The hostage crisis has stunned France, touching off street demonstrations in support of the journalists. Muslim groups inside and outside the country have also called for their release.
France campaigned against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and, as a result, considered itself relatively safe from attack by radicals. The country also opposed the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq beginning in the early 1990s.
The French government has ruled out canceling the ban but has launched a diplomatic effort to free Malbrunot and Chesnot.
Foreign Minister Michel Barnier visited Egypt Monday as part of a mission to rally support in the region for the two journalists.
"Their kidnapping is incomprehensible to all those who know that France . . . is a land of tolerance and of respect for others," Barnier said, before meeting Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
"I urge everyone who has power, or has the capabilities, to set the journalists free as soon as possible," Moussa said.
Iraqi Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups and Islamic groups outside Iraq urged the kidnappers to release the two, noting France's opposition to the U.S.-led Iraq war and saying journalists were not combatants. The kidnappers identified themselves as members of a group called the Islamic Army of Iraq.
On Monday, many Muslim women in head scarves joined French protests for the journalists' freedom. About 3,000 people demonstrated in Paris and 200 people took to the streets of eastern Strasbourg.
"The hostage-taking risks making public opinion in France turn against women and girls who wear head scarves," one of the veiled protesters in Paris said in front of the headquarters of Radio France Internationale, Chesnot's employer.
Al-Jazeera, which has regularly broadcast tapes of hostages, said all kidnapped journalists should be released.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder offered a word of caution about efforts to free them, saying: "The more it's dealt with in public, the less chance there will be to resolve the crisis."
France passed the law in March in reaction to the growing influence of hard-core Islamic activists and tensions between Muslim and Jewish youths in schools. The law bans all overt religious attire, including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.