No one, it seems, thought about the Sikhs and their turbans.
As part of a struggle to separate religion from the state, France is poised to pass a law banning religious symbols like Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from public schools.
But a report by an official commission of experts and a speech by President Jacques Chirac last month recommending passage of a legal ban said nothing about the head coverings worn by Sikhs.
France is home to only several thousand Sikhs, compared with about 600,000 Jews and 5 million Muslims. Historically, the Sikh population is quiet, law-abiding, apolitical and almost invisible -- living, working and worshiping mainly in a few isolated pockets of suburban Paris. Now they have found their voice, demanding that they be exempted from the anticipated prohibition.
Sitting barefooted and cross-legged in a large worship room in the Gurdwara Singh Sabha temple in the working-class Paris suburb of Bobigny, two dozen Sikhs sounded a chorus of protest.
"I'm 100 percent French, I speak French, I was born here," said Dhramvir Singh, a 17-year-old student who wears a dark blue turban knotted in front to school every day. "But it's impossible for me to take off my turban. If they force me, I'll have to drop out, and never be able to do anything except a job that no one else wants."
The Sikhs' situation underscores the perils that confront a state when it ventures into the complicated world of religious practice. The impetus for the law stems largely from the increase in the number of Muslim girls turning up at public schools in head scarves, or even in long, black veils that hide their chins, foreheads and the shape of their bodies.
Most Jewish students who wear skullcaps attend private Jewish schools; there has never been a problem with Catholic students' wearing crosses that Chirac described in his speech as "obviously of an excessive dimension," members of the government's commission said.
In a recent letter to Chirac asking for an exemption for Sikhs, Chain Singh, a leader of the Bobigny temple, said if Sikhs could not wear their turbans to school, "This will not only be a failure of our freedom to practice our religion here in France but also of the attitude of the French toward the Sikh community."
An official at the Ministry of National Education, which is responsible for negotiating the law with Parliament, declined comment, except to say: "What? There are Sikhs in France?" A senior official at the Ministry of the Interior responsible for religious matters said: "I know nothing about the Sikh problem. Are there many Sikhs in France?"
The French ideal of a secular republican state in which all people are equal is so strong that the census does not count people according to race, religion or ethnic origins. Affirmative-action laws do not exist.
The Bobigny temple has begun collecting signatures on a petition that calls on all "citizens of France, religious or not, believing or not" to help protest a law that it contends would be "inhuman." Even though a vast majority of Sikh students are French citizens, the Sikhs have also sent a letter of protest to the Indian embassy in Paris, asking the Indian government to intercede.
The Sikh letter to Chirac injects a new twist into the debate, arguing that the turban should be allowed because it is a cultural, not a religious, symbol.
"Different from a Muslim veil or a Jewish yarmulke, a turban has no religious symbolism," the letter said. One of the tenets of the Sikh religion requires Sikh men never to cut their hair, but says nothing per se about wearing turbans.
The distinction between cultural and religious dress cuts both ways, though. On the one hand, the French government could argue that if the garment is purely cultural, there is no reason why Sikhs must wear it, just as schools traditionally ban students from wearing baseball caps and other head coverings.
Some politicians are calling for the ban to apply to political symbols in schools as well, like the Palestinian kaffiyeh and T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara. A debate also rages on whether the law should ban religious symbols that are "ostensible," "ostentatious" or just plain "visible."
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