Luc Ferry said on Wednesday the new law would not simply cover Islamic headscarves, Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps, but would also apply to other religious symbols.

When asked by French parliamentarians if this applied to beards and bandanas, Ferry said: "If the bandana is used by young girls as a religious symbol it will be banned."

He added: "As soon as (the beard) is used as a religious symbol that will also fall under the scope of the law."  

The beard is considered a religious obligation by many Muslims and by Orthodox Jews.

And the bandana has been mooted by French Muslims as a compromise for Muslim girls who do not want to remove their headscarves in schools.

Turban exception?

However, a senior French parliamentary leader ruled out Ferry's interpretation of the law.

"If the bandana is used by young girls as a religious symbol it will be banned... As soon as (the beard) is used as a religious symbol that will also fall under the scope of the law"

Luc Ferry,
French education minister
  

Bernard Accoyer, the deputy parliamentary leader of the centre-right UMP party, said beards and bandanas would not be outlawed. However, he did not give further details.

Meanwhile, France's small Sikh community is confident its boys can continue to wear turbans to state schools after talks with officials to explain their headgear is not a religious symbol.

Community leaders reported encouraging talks with senior officials in the foreign, interior and education ministries aimed at explaining why the turbans should not be banned.

The Sikhs, of whom about 5000 live in the Paris area, say turbans are a practical covering for the hair they never cut rather than an expression of faith like an Islamic headscarf.

'Orientalism'

"I think they realise they're in very muddy waters," said Jasdev Singh Rai, a London-based human rights activist appointed to help French Sikhs fight the looming ban.

"We are pigeonholed into categories we don't fit in," he said. "There is almost an Orientalism here - the West defines who we are and we have to live by it."

Rai said senior French officials he had met accepted that Sikh boys could wear the "patka", the simple headscarf they use under a turban, but this was not enough for them.

"It's like saying you can go to school in a bikini - you can, but it's not very dignified," he said. "But we have started discussing the issue and I think we are moving forward."

Sikhs say the turban is a practical
covering for uncut hair

Sikhs, whose monotheistic religion started in India's Punjab region in the 15th century, wear turbans in armies and police forces or on motorcycles in Britain, Canada and the United States. Germany also lets them ride motorcycles without helmets.

Secularism 

France has debated itself into a twist over the ban, which President Jacques Chirac proposed last month to stem the alleged rising Islamist influence among some of the country's five million Muslims.

There is wide support for a ban in France and its passage seems secured.

But the country's efforts to explain that barring religious symbols from state schools would reinforce tolerance for all faiths have fallen on deaf ears abroad.

Commentators and religious leaders see the idea as a secularist push to suppress religious freedom.

And thousands of Muslims across France - many of them schoolgirls wearing headscarves - have recently marched in protest against the ban.