- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

GENEVA — French President Jacques Chirac dispatched his foreign minister to the Middle East yesterday in the face of a terrorist threat to two French citizens that Paris could not readily blame on American foreign policy.

Kidnappers holding two French journalists in Iraq have demanded that France drop a new law barring the wearing of head scarves by Muslim schoolgirls — who return to classes at state-run schools this week. They set a deadline of midnight tonight.

While no specific death threat was made in the ultimatum from the “Islamic Army of Iraq” delivered over the weekend, the same group said last week it had killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni.

“The lives of two Frenchmen, as well as the values of the republic” are at stake, Mr. Chirac said in a dramatic address yesterday before Foreign Minister Michel Barnier flew to Cairo in an effort to secure the release of the two journalists.

“I solemnly demand their liberation,” Mr. Chirac said of the two reporters, stressing that “France has always guaranteed religious freedom — the cement of the nation.”

The French government until now has viewed the violence in Iraq as a direct consequence of the U.S.-led war against dictator Saddam Hussein. But it has become obvious that Islamic terrorists also are aiming at France, its secular principles and its laws.

The government sees its new law as a principled defense of the separation of church and state in a country with 5 million Muslims.

Although the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin announced a “general mobilization at the highest level,” its only options appeared to be diplomacy and the intervention of leaders of the Islamic community in France, which generally condemns the kidnappings.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat joined those calling for the release of the journalists, describing Mr. Chirac as “a good friend of the Palestinian people.”

French Islamic leaders yesterday issued a series of appeals to the “Islamic Army,” an al Qaeda-linked group that has claimed responsibility for killing more than a dozen hostages.

The two journalists — Christian Chesnot, a freelancer on assignment for Radio France International, and Georges Malbrunot of the Paris daily Le Figaro — were kidnapped nine days ago in Iraq. Late on Saturday, the Qatar-based television station Al Jazeera broadcast a tape showing the two hostages, one of whom said he was “well.”

The terrorist ultimatum came at the time of testing of the “Law of 15 March,” which bans all visible religious symbols in state schools. In addition to head scarves, the ban includes Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses.

The ban was introduced in the face of growing demands by the Islamic community, which also wants the segregation of boys and girls in swimming pools and gym classes and breaks for prayers during examinations.

According to Michele Vianes, president of the Association of Women in Lyon, “an offensive minority has usurped the role of spokesman for all Muslims.”

But many Muslim organizations in France and the Arab world consider the ban to be an act of aggression against Islam. Several Islamic religious leaders have urged Muslim girls in France to defy the authorities and report for classes with their heads covered.

Tunisia banned the wearing of head scarves by women nearly 20 years ago, considering them a political message rather than a religious obligation.

French Education Minister Francois Fillon has promised to be ready to apply the law and challenge any defiance by Muslim girls.

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