Girls Expelled Over French Head-Scarf Law

Two Muslim (search) girls were expelled from high school Wednesday for refusing to remove their head scarves — the fourth such expulsion in two days — as officials began punishing those who defy a new law banning conspicuous religious symbols from being worn in public schools.

A 17-year-old girl was forced out of school in the eastern city of Mulhouse following a disciplinary hearing, said Gilles-Jean Klein, spokesman for the Strasbourg school district. Another girl was expelled from a school in the town of Flers in the western Normandy region, according to the Caen school district.

Two other girls, aged 12 and 13, were forced out of school Tuesday in Mulhouse, bringing the total to four students expelled since the law took effect at the start of the new school year in September.

A fifth student, also in Mulhouse, also risked expulsion later Wednesday, Klein said. Six more students could face a similar fate before the end of the week, the Education Ministry said.

At the start of the week, 72 students faced expulsion for refusing to remove conspicuous religious signs or apparel — 17 of them in the Strasbourg area. Most are Muslim girls who wear Islamic head scarves, although the number includes some Sikh (search) boys who refuse to remove their turbans.

The law, passed in March but applied starting in September, bans conspicuous religious signs and apparel, including Muslim head scarves, Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses. It is intended to uphold France's constitutionally guaranteed principle of secularism, considered undermined by a growing number of Muslim girls wearing head scarves in public schools.

Authorities have also said they view it as a way to fight rising Muslim fundamentalism in France and to protect the rights of women, widely viewed here as submissive to men if they wear head scarves.

France has proceeded cautiously after a group claiming to hold two French journalists hostage in Iraq since Aug. 20 demanded that the law be lifted.

A required period of dialogue aimed at persuading those who defy the legislation to change course has continued for weeks.

However, schools began convening hearings to decide difficult cases this week, and a total of nine were being held at schools around France before the All Saints Day vacation period, which ends after the Nov. 1 Roman Catholic holiday.

Those expelled have the right to appeal their cases. If they are under 16 — the legal age for leaving school — the expelled students must continue their education at a private school, by correspondence or another means, Klein said.

At the start of the school year in September, some 600 cases of defiance of the law were reported. Most have been resolved through dialogue — as called for in the legislation, Education Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday.

The small Sikh community in France, estimated at 5,000 to 7,000 people, has learned that turbans also can pose a problem. Three Sikhs with turbans at a school in Bobigny, outside Paris, have been kept out of class since the start of the year.

In the first court case resulting from the law, Sikh leaders have asked an administrative court to force the Louise-Michel school to convene a disciplinary council or let the boys return. A ruling is expected Friday.