PARIS – It was easier for 16-year-old Nadia Arabi to remove her Islamic head scarf Thursday than to defy a new law banning religious signs in the classroom, or to risk contempt for breaking a national chain of solidarity for two Frenchmen held hostage by militants in Iraq (search).
Nadia was not alone as public schools opened the fall term. Despite divisive debate over the law, compliance was widespread, Education Minister Francois Fillon said.
But that was seen less as a sign of surrender by conservative Muslims than part of the national effort -- with the Islamic community at the forefront -- to save two French journalists held by Islamic radicals demanding that the law be scrapped. The French government firmly refused the demand.
"It is clear that the international context has played a non-negligible role" in the peaceful return to school, Armand Martin, head of Raymond Queneau High School in Villeneuve d'Ascq, told LCI television. His school, outside the northern city of Lille, held the unofficial record for girls wearing Muslim head scarves last year -- 58, according the newspaper Le Monde.
Fillon said only 240 schoolgirls in all of France (search) showed up in head scarves Thursday, compared to 1,200 counted last year. Only 70 refused to remove their scarves when they walked through the school door, he said.
Those who defied the new measure, which was adopted to reinforce France's secularist traditions, are in discussions with school officials, Fillon said. The law calls for a period of dialogue, guaranteeing offenders cannot be expelled immediately. Each school decides whether those girls attend class or go to study halls during the discussion period.
"I was always treated badly and I felt uncomfortable, so I decided to take it off," Nadia said outside the gates of the Henri Wallon school in the working-class Paris suburb of Aubervilliers (search). "Just because I wear a head scarf doesn't mean I think it's right to kidnap French people or anyone else."
Students at Henri Wallon, where two veiled sisters were expelled last October, said they were given a handout spelling out the law and instructed to be able to explain it.
The law, passed in March, forbids conspicuous religious signs or apparel in public schools, including Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses.
However, its real target is the Islamic head scarf. There are an estimated 5 million Muslims in France, the largest Muslim population in western Europe, and many people worried Islamic fundamentalism was taking root in schools.
Authorities want to bolster France's much cherished principle of secularism, which they argue is the best way to guarantee peaceful coexistence among the country's various religions and communities.
"We were facing a threat to our national cohesion ...," Fillon said on France-Inter radio. "We wanted to clarify the situation."
France had inched tensely toward the opening day of classes, with no one knowing what to expect. Hotlines were set up to counsel Muslim girls in a quandary, and experts and Muslim officials predicted a rash of court cases will be brought by girls who are expelled.
For the first day of school, at least, the focus was on the hostages in Iraq rather than the law's requirements.
Islamic organizations have been at the heart of a show of solidarity for French efforts to win the release of reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, and Muslim families were reminded of the need for discretion.
The Union of Islamic Organizations of France, the leading Muslim fundamentalist organization and a vocal opponent of the law, participated in a delegation of Muslim leaders who went to Iraq on Wednesday.
"We must be responsible," one member of the mission, Mohammed Bechari, warned in an interview published Thursday in the newspaper Le Figaro.
During a visit to the Jacques Brel High School in a heavily Muslim district of northern Paris, Fillon argued that the hostage-takers had unwittingly created national unity in France.
That remained to be seen. Myriam Benalouache, a 15-year-old student at Jacques Brel, questioned the law as she waited to enter school Thursday. She never wears a head scarf, but said she thought it wrong to demand that all girls uncover their heads.
"For Muslim girls it's like removing one's clothes," she said.
Others said the law is making them choose between their country and their religion. Standing outside a mosque in northern Paris, 37-year-old Naser Admar said he interpreted the law as a message that Muslims aren't welcome.
"They're trying to get rid of us," said 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."