SAINT-OUEN, France Sept. 3, 2004—For some French Muslims, two worlds collided as the ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in public schools took effect. Many described Thursday as crunch day, when they were forced to question the meaning of being Muslim in a Roman Catholic country where life since Sept. 11, 2001, has become more tense and divisive.
Additional pressure came from Iraqi militants who have threatened to killed two French hostages if France didn’t overturn the ban.
Not all are lining up behind President Jacques Chirac and the law he backed as a way to make all French students look equal.
In interviews across Paris and nearby suburbs, French Muslims denounced the kidnapping of the two French journalists in Iraq. But some said they understand the point of view of the Islamic militants.
“France stirred things up with this law. It was a mistake,” said Abdel, 35, a Frenchman of Moroccan origin who owns a grocery off the main square of Saint-Ouen, a working class Paris suburb.
“Muslims around the world warned France not to do this. But France went through with the law, and now this is the response,” shrugged Abdel, who talked quietly when customers entered the store and said the subject was too sensitive to give his last name.
Despite misgivings about the ban, the Muslim community has been vociferous in calling for the release of the French hostages. Prayer sessions have been held at French mosques, Muslim leaders have urged Islamic extremists to stay out of France’s internal affairs and a delegation traveled to Baghdad to try to win the reporters’ release.
Muslim leaders fear their community, where some already feel stigmatized by the new law, could become a target of hate if the journalists are killed.
“It would be a disaster. The racists and the xenophobes would find it a good pretext to throw themselves against Muslims, to stoke their hatred against us,” Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, told Italian daily Il Messaggero.
France has refused to meet the captors’ demand that the head scarf ban be revoked.
On Thursday, a Paris newspaper editor said there had been positive movement in the effort to free the two captive journalists. The kidnappers in Iraq have handed over the pair to an Iraqi Sunni Muslim opposition group, Jean de Belot, managing editor of Le Figaro newspaper, said on France-Info radio.
Authorities say France needs the law to protect its secularism and guarantee peaceful coexistence among its various religions and communities. France has an estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest such community in Western Europe.
Some Muslims say the law is making them choose between their country and their religion.
“Things are changing in France,” said Amiri Toufik, a 22-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin standing outside a rundown mosque in northern Paris. “Muslims are suffering from this situation.”
Like many Muslims, Toufik said he felt boxed in by unemployment, racism and life in a crime-ridden neighborhood on the edge of Paris that offers little opportunity for upward mobility.
Beside him was 37-year-old Naser Admar, who said he interpreted the law as a message that Muslims aren’t welcome.
“They’re trying to get rid of us,” shrugged Admar, a refrigerator repairman with two young daughters. “When my girls are old enough to wear head scarves, I’ll send them to school in Algeria.”
On a corner near the mosque, 26-year-old law student Kamel Lamine said he emigrated from Algeria because France represented freedom and democracy.
“You know what I say? ‘Vive la France,’“ Lamine said. “I just want France to accept us.”