Muslims argued on Friday that they were being targeted by a new tool of discrimination.

Drawn up by a 20-member committee under former minister Bernard Stasi, the secularity commission report was handed over to President Jacques Chirac on Thursday.

The key proposal is that "conspicuous" religious insignia such as headscarves, Jewish skull-caps and "large" crosses be prohibited in the classroom.

Chirac will deliver his verdict on Wednesday, but judging from past pronouncements he seems likely to follow its recommendation to put the ban into law.

Social disharmony 

However, Muslims have questioned whether a law aimed primarily at the country's five million-strong community could do anything to improve social harmony.

Stasi also wants skull-caps and
large crosses banned in schools

The country's most-visited Islamic Internet site, Oumma.com, issued a blistering rejection of the proposed law, saying it exposed the hypocrisy of a nation supposedly wedded to the principle of free expression.

"What is happening in France? The country that once elevated reason above all other forms of thought is now beating itself into a frenzy.

"How could the nation that forged the rights of man descend to such obscurantism? Our 200 year-old republic is shaken by a piece of clothing," it said.

According to Oumma.com's editorial director Said Branine, ordinary Muslims who grew up in France feel deeply offended by the Stasi committee's recommendations.

Archaic France

"This is a law that targets Muslims. Up till recently there were two religions in France. Now there are three, but in typical French fashion the establishment is years, even decades, behind reality.

"France likes to boast of being 'exceptional.' It's rubbish. France is just archaic." 

He added: "French Muslims are republicans, democrats, secularists. But we also have our Islamic identity transmitted from our parents. We are not going to give it up. To expect us to is a colonial frame of mind." 

"How could the nation that forged the rights of man descend to such obscurantism? Our 200 year-old republic is shaken by a piece of clothing"

Oumma.com editorial 

Others warned that a headscarf ban would be self-defeating, encouraging the kind of "extremism" that France is trying to combat.

French establishment

"My fear is that a law would be seen by the most militant part of the Muslim community as a frontal attack against Islam. We would end up with even more headscarf problems than we have now," said sociologist Jean-Yves Camus of the European Research Centre on Racism and Anti-Semitism.

But France's leading Islamic cleric, the rector of the Paris mosque Dalil Boubakeur, said he would urge Muslims to obey any law, although he suggested a grace period of several months so that families could get used to the new situation.

However, as President Jacques Chirac began deliberating the findings, politicians, religious leaders, teachers and editorialists gave a guarded welcome to Thursday's ruling.

Most French newspapers applauded what they saw as the reassertion of the country's secular identity, with the conservative Le Figaro pronouncing it "is not for the republic to adapt to Islam, but for Islam to adapt to the republic".