A teenage girl wearing a turquoise pantsuit and a flowered head scarf crowded behind classmates at the entrance to Jacques Brel High School in a Paris suburb Thursday. When she arrived at the door, she showed a monitor a photo identification card and slid the kerchief from her head.
It was a scene played out at many public schools around the country on Thursday, the day 12 million students returned for a new semester. By pulling off her head scarf as she rushed into the building, past a phalanx of reporters, the girl was in compliance with a new law banning Muslim head coverings in public schools. The ban also prohibits all other overtly religious garb, including crucifixes, Jewish skullcaps and Sikh turbans.
The ban triggered massive demonstrations in France and protests in several cities around the world earlier this year. Critics condemned the law as an attack on religious freedom and said it would stigmatize the estimated 5 million Muslims in France. Some Muslim groups pledged further protests, calling the restriction anti-Islamic.
But Thursday, the first day of school with the ban in effect, went quietly. Muslim groups called for compliance with the law, and there were no reports of public demonstrations. The matter had become a life-and-death issue when kidnappers in Iraq threatened to kill two French journalists if France did not rescind the law.
A delegation of French Muslim leaders spent Thursday in Baghdad contacting Iraqi religious figures in hopes of enlisting their help in freeing Christian Chesnot of Radio France International and Georges Malbrunot of the daily newspaper Le Figaro. Late Thursday, an editor at Le Figaro said the men had been handed over to an Iraqi group that has said it favors releasing them, the Reuters news agency reported.
French officials praised Muslim leaders for rallying in support of the hostages and adhering to the law.
But at Jacques Brel High, a sense of injustice prevailed among Muslim students, even among those who favored complying with the new regulations. The school has 1,000 students, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants. Some who had once given little thought to their religious identity were thinking about it Thursday and wondering what their place was in French society.
"I wear the scarf for my religion, but I will remove it because it's the law," said Jubaida Mohammed, 17, born in France to Indian immigrants. She arrived at school wearing a black head scarf but let it drop to her shoulders as she chatted with friends in an outer courtyard.
"I don't think the law is right. I don't think we do any harm," she said. "It seems aimed at Muslims and makes us uneasy."
Another young woman who arrived at Jacques Brel wearing a scarf said she was undecided about whether to challenge the ban. The teenager, of Tunisian descent, had come to pick up material for a vocational course in accounting she would begin Friday. "I've been wearing it for a month," the girl, who declined to provide her name, said of the scarf. "My father is against it. My mother's on vacation and hasn't seen me. I wear it because I had a mystical feeling. If I wear it to school, I risk losing my education. I'm not against France, just in favor of my religion."
France, with its relatively large Muslim community, has become the epicenter of a pan-European struggle to come to terms with growing Islamic immigration and its cultural ramifications. Religious symbolism and teachings have become battlegrounds.
France is the only country in Western Europe that has banned head scarves in public schools. The government has a strong tradition of secularism and promotes restrictions on religious symbols as a means of promoting integration in a diverse society.
French officials said students would have until the end of the month to comply with the law but will face expulsion after that. "There is no question today of expulsion," Education Minister Francois Fillon said. "It is a question of convincing."
Miriam Ben Aloash, a sophomore of Algerian descent who sported an oversize Nike athletic shirt and tight white pants, said she was against wearing scarves. "I've never worn one myself," she said. "But anyway, I think the law is wrong. I won't be surprised if some girls will wear it sometimes just to challenge the law, to provoke. It's aimed at Muslims, so people take offense. France's secularism is just an excuse."
Some students said teachers had announced that even bandannas were prohibited, even if worn for fashion reasons.
Amine Badra, a muscular boy with a mound of hair atop his head bound up in a blue bandanna, said: "This law definitely comes into effect at a bad time. The hostages are at risk. There are extremists here and abroad. But I have to say, I'm a Muslim and the law is unfair. People wear a lot stranger things here than scarves." He gestured to a girl with multiple piercings in her ears and a ring in her nose. "Anyway, I guess my bandanna will have to go."