Dalil Bubakr, the moderate chairman of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), struggled to rally Muslims behind his warning not to join protest marches planned for 17 January by several more fringe groups.

But leaders of the two largest groups in the CFCM, a body Paris helped launch last year to bring France's five million Muslims more into the mainstream, refused to denounce the protests against a law they say is discriminatory.

The dispute was shaping up as a big challenge to Bubakr, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, and a potentially damaging political embarrassment for President Jacques Chirac and fellow conservatives who imposed Bubakr as head of the CFCM.

"I warn my fellow Muslims, brothers and sisters," Bubakr said in arguing against the protests after the CFCM leadership met Education Minister Luc Ferry to lobby against the veil law.

"In the current climate of tense relations between Muslims and society in Europe in general and France in particular, we must play the democratic game."

Unable to prevent protests

But CFCM vice-chairman Fuad Alaoui, from the Union of French Islamic Organisations, disagreed: "Given their growing anger, we cannot tell Muslims who feel their fundamental liberties are being violated that they shouldn't demonstrate."

President Chirac (C) appointed 
Bubakr (L) as head of the CFCM  

Khalil Merroun, representing the National Federation of French Muslims, agreed leaders could not hold back Muslims who saw the hijab as a religious duty for women and not a challenge to France's strictly secular state.

While the CFCM leaders argued, Paris rushed to turn the proposed ban - a highly popular measure among voters who fear Islamic radicals are gaining ground among French Muslims - into a draft law to be debated before regional elections in March.

Chirac ally Bubakr stressed the ban's link with the upcoming vote by telling the daily Le Parisien in an interview: "I don't advise my brothers to frighten citizens two months
before the regional elections."

Socialist party critical

Pollsters say the anti-immigrant National Front party could score well in some regions with a scare campaign linked to the growing number of veiled Muslim women in French cities.

"Given their growing anger, we cannot tell Muslims who feel their fundamental liberties are being violated that they shouldn't demonstrate"

Fuad Alaoui
CFCM vice-chairman

The planned law, aimed mainly at veiled Muslim schoolgirls although it will also ban the few Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses seen in public schools and hospitals, has also run into trouble with the opposition Socialist party.

Parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault said the party was not satisfied with the draft text, saying it was not tough enough and "opens the way for more disputes".

"We need a clear and simple symbol to put a stop to fundamentalist or sectarian excesses in public life," he said.

A first pro-veil march in Paris last month rallied over 3000 protesters, many of them veiled young women.