Muslim leaders in France on Sunday condemned the kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq and said the government should not capitulate to militant demands to revoke a law that bans the wearing of Islamic head scarves in schools.
The government showed no signs that it would change the law, which takes effect when school opens this week. The interior minister defended the measure.
"It is not directed at anyone but aims on the contrary at preserving everybody's freedom," said Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin (search), flanked by Muslim leaders. "It plays a role in the cohesion of our country."
Islamic militants who claimed to be holding Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot gave France 48 hours to overturn the law, according to Arab TV station Al-Jazeera. It showed a brief videotape of the journalists saying they were being held but were well treated. Their captors did not issue an ultimatum.
The kidnapping proved false the notion that France's opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Paris' generally pro-Arab policy had inoculated the French against Islamic terrorism.
Al-Jazeera said militants claiming to hold the reporters described the head scarf law as "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms."
In France, Muslim leaders were strong in their condemnation. Some expressed fears, however, of a backlash for the 5 million-strong Muslim community, western Europe's biggest.
"We must not negotiate. It is blackmail which the Muslims of France reject. It is blackmail which does not serve the Muslim cause and which unfortunately holds the Muslim community hostage," said Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the powerful Union of Islamic Organizations of France.
"The head scarf issue is a solely French affair and we do not accept foreign interference," he added.
Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, said the kidnapping could present "danger" for French Muslims and he urged them to condemn it.
"Our community is adult enough to speak with the French government about its own problems," he told Associated Press Television News. "We need peace. We need serenity. We need humanity — without these terrible events."
De Villepin, the interior minister, did not directly address the reported demand for a revocation of the law, adopted in March with wide support from lawmakers across the political spectrum.
But in an apparent reminder of French opposition to the Iraq war, de Villepin said: "France has never stopped defending respect for law and for justice, respect for the sovereignty of all peoples."
He said France is united in calling for the reporters' release and that French secularism guarantees religious freedoms while keeping the state neutral.
"We want everyone to know that secularism in our country does not divide the French but unites them," he said. "French people of all origins, of all religions or all faiths, are united behind our compatriots Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. Together, we ask for their release."
Chesnot, of Radio France-Internationale and Radio France, and Malbrunot, who works for the dailies Le Figaro and Ouest-France and RTL radio, have not been in touch with their employers since Aug. 19.
The law forbids public school students from wearing religious apparel and "conspicuous" signs showing their religious affiliation. That includes Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.
French authorities have made clear, however, that the ban is aimed at removing Islamic head scarves from classrooms. The law sparked protests at home and abroad, with many Muslims saying they felt unfairly targeted.