The kidnapping of two French reporters in Iraq by a group demanding that Paris revoke the ban overshadowed the start of the school year, which seemed to pass off smoothly on Thursday.

France has rejected the demands of the group, called the Islamic Army in Iraq, to rescind the ban.

Hanifa Cherifi, of the French education ministry, said there were "no indications that students have refused to remove conspicuous religious insignia".

Education Minister Francois Fillon said the resumption of classes was "marked by fraternity, the idea that all children are treated fairly and equally".

"If France is a reference in terms of human rights, it's because this is a secular republic that integrates all children, whoever they are," noted Fillon.

Acceptance 

Muslim groups that had condemned the "secularity law" have not attempted to resume their campaign against it.

"We're telling the girls not to come to defy the state," Fuad Alawi, secretary general of the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), said in a final appeal before leaving for Baghdad to try to help in negotiations for the two reporters.

"We are not telling Muslim girls to take off the hijab. We are saying they should go to school and not wear a veil which is a distinctive sign of their religion"

Lhaj Thami Brez,
UOIF president

"They should make their schooling the priority."

And Lhaj Thami Brez, the president of the UOIF, told Aljazeera.net that the hijab is compatible with the secularity law, even if many French Muslims do not realise it.

"We are not telling Muslim girls to take off the hijab," he said. "We are saying they should go to school and not wear a veil which is a distinctive sign of their religion.

"But according to the law, it is perfectly acceptable to wear a head covering like a bandanna or a hat. The Muslim community needs to be educated about this."

Headscarf protest

Brez added the French Muslim community had now accepted the law and his organisation would not continue to demonstrate against it.

Meanwhile, journalists waiting outside schools in neighbourhoods with large North African populations reported seeing some girls baring their heads as they neared the gate.

President Chirac says schools
should be a bastion of secularity

The Jacques Brel School in La Courneuve, a poor suburb north of Paris, last year had 52 veiled pupils but none were seen in veils on Thursday.

Parents said they did not like the ban but did not want to risk their daughters being expelled.

Just one pro-headscarf protest took place on the eve of the return to school. About 50 people in the city of Strasbourg, many of them girls in head-and-shoulders hijabs, demonstrated against the law.

"The aim is to say that there is no link with what's going on in Iraq. The demands of this obscure (Iraqi) group have nothing to do with us," said Willy Beauvallet, one of the protest leaders.

Religious obligation

The ban, confirmed in March, also covers Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, but officials have made clear their main aim was to outlaw the headscarf to combat "extremist influence" among a minority of France's five million Muslims.

However, French Muslim groups argue the hijab is a religious obligation and not a sign of "extremism".

They also say it poses no threat to French secularity, and that the new law will alienate French Muslims rather than integrate them into society.

To reduce tension, Fillon has instructed school principals to accept veiled pupils on opening day and challenge them later in a dialogue with parents and other school officials.