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The Annual Meeting of Muslims, at Le Bourget, France, is Europe's largest Muslim convention.
The Annual Meeting of Muslims, at Le Bourget, France, is Europe's largest Muslim convention.

Extended French headscarf ban worries Muslims

The French president, Francois Hollande, says he wants a new law that could extend restrictions on the wearing of prominent religious symbols in state jobs into the private sector.

LE BOURGET, France // Because of her choice to wear a headscarf, Samia Kaddour, a Muslim, has all but abandoned trying to land a government job in France. Soon, some private sector jobs could be off limits, too.

The French president, Francois Hollande, says he wants a new law that could extend restrictions on the wearing of prominent religious symbols in state jobs into the private sector. His new tack comes after a top French court ruled in March that a day care operator that gets some state funding unfairly fired a woman in a headscarf, sparking a political backlash.

Ms Kaddour was one of thousands of people who attended the Annual Meeting of Muslims of France in Le Bourget, north of Paris, at the weekend. The four-day convention, which last year drew about 160,000 faithful, is billed as the largest annual gathering of its kind in Europe and is now in its 30th year.

French law bars state employees from wearing prominent religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps or large Christian crosses in public schools, welfare offices or other government facilities. Two years ago, France banned Muslim veils that cover faces, such as the niqab, which has a slit for the eyes, or the mesh-screen burqa, from being worn anywhere in public.

Meeting leaders say France has made progress in accepting Muslims and noted that, unlike 30 years ago, women wearing headscarves today rarely draw suspicion, scowls or curiosity. Still, many Muslims - and even some Roman Catholics and Jews - fear France's insistence on secular values first enshrined in the French Revolution more than two centuries ago is unfairly crimping their ability to express their religious beliefs freely.

They also worry that Mr Hollande's socialist government, like the conservative one before it, wants to score political points.

"Islam has become a political instrument," said Ms Kaddour, 26, a community activist from the English Channel port city of Le Havre and one of 10 children of Algerian-born parents who moved to France for plentiful jobs during its economic boom times decades ago. "Islam is always brandished whenever there is internal political discord."

Most mainstream politicians insist Islam is not being targeted. But a backlash erupted after the Court of Cassation ruled in March that Baby Loup, a private-sector day care operator that gets some state funding, unfairly fired a woman who wore a headscarf to work. The far-right railed at the decision, and even the interior minister, Manuel Valls, expressed regret over it.

Wading into the debate in a prime-time TV interview last week, Mr Hollande suggested new limits were needed on Muslim headscarves, saying that "when there is contact with children, in what we call public service of early childhood ... there should be a certain similarity to what exists in [public] school."

"I think the law should get involved," he added.

Many Muslims fear an encroaching Islamophobia, while proponents of such measures insist they counter extremism and act as a rampart to protect France's identity against inequality. Polls show that most French people support at least some restrictions on religious symbols.

France, with an estimated 5 million to 6 million Muslims whose families mostly have origins in former French colonies in north Africa, is at the forefront of addressing the challenges that many European countries are facing about how to integrate their sizeable ethnic and religious minorities on a continent where white Christians have dominated the political landscape for centuries.

Bristling against stereotypes in many corners of the West that Muslims are closet radicals or even terrorists, leaders of the convention in Le Bourget preached peace and justice.

Ms Kaddour said many Muslims regret that their faith is in the political crosscurrents again in France. But she said she was not discouraged enough yet to want to leave.

"Many others feel that way too: we are French and we have our place to claim and our future to establish in France," she said. "I'm not a foreigner. I'm French. I want to live in France, I love this country. Even if it has trouble liking us, we are going to do what's necessary to live serenely in France."

Ms Kaddour says she plans to go back to school to get a higher degree, but has all but given up hopes for a state job. And in France, that matters: the European Union says more than half of France's gross domestic product comes from government spending.

"A state job, unfortunately ..." she said, her voice trailing off. "When I go into job interviews, I wear my headscarf. No results." She admits that she does not always know why - it could just be her skill set is not sufficient - but suspects her religion plays a role, too.

Ms Kaddour says her future career seems increasingly limited to independent, private practice work. She currently works for a small community group devoted to improving understanding of Islam, called Le Havre de Savoir, or The Haven of Knowledge.

At a time of double-digit unemployment rates in France, a nation of 65 million, such restrictions to job access hit headscarf-wearing women especially hard: Muslim men in France do not usually wear visible religious garb.

Ahmed Jaballah, the head of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, a major Muslim group that helped organise the weekend conference, said the "rather morose ambiance" over France's sluggish economic growth recently has not helped Muslims' aspirations, suggesting that a search for scapegoats is politically appealing.

He said he was concerned about the government's plans.

"Unfortunately, Muslims have the impression today that secularism is being shaped based on Muslim practices, and that's worrisome," he said. "Everybody always talks about secularism, how it's not just about Muslims. But in fact, Muslims are targeted. Nobody is fooled."

"Muslims wonder: can we trust secularism?" he said. "Remember the French slogan: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Today, we want this fraternity to be real."

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