PARIS — Three hundred years ago, the Sikhs in the Indian Punjab renounced the Hindu caste system, and with it the family names that revealed their status: Every Sikh man is called Mr. Singh, and every Sikh woman Mrs. Kaur.
Monday, the Sikhs of France are again defying established custom. They are launching a last-ditch defense of their distinctive turbans in the face of a proposed French law banning conspicuous religious symbols that threatens to keep their boys out of school. In doing so, they are asking the French state to reconsider fundamental elements of what it means by national identity.
"We are a challenge not just to legal systems but to ways of thinking," said Jasdav Singh, as he led a demonstration of his brightly turbaned and luxuriantly bearded coreligionists through the streets of Paris on Saturday. "We are victims of the Western obsession with categorization and the trend towards conformity."
Tuesday, parliament will open debate on a law proposed by President Jacques Chirac designed to reinforce the French tradition of laïcité, a pillar of a secular system that keeps all show of religion out of public schools. The law
would forbid Jewish boys to wear skullcaps to school, Muslim girls would be forbidden to wear a veil, and Christian children would not be allowed to display outsize crucifixes.
The Sikhs insist that the turbans their men and boys wear over their uncut hair are not religious symbols but essential to their dignity. That claim has opened up a gray area in the debate, feeding growing doubts among some French politicians about the wisdom of legislating on such a delicate subject.
The planned law was inspired by fears that fundamentalist Muslims are forcing girls to wear the veil, and by hopes of shoring up secular French values in a multicultural and multiracial country where immigrants have often been poorly integrated into society.
The 5,000 or so Sikhs in France, who have hitherto lived almost unnoticed in a few poor suburbs of Paris, find themselves caught up in a debate that had, until a few weeks ago, swirled far above their heads. Predominantly lower middle class, they appear not to have been aware of the government commission that took evidence for several months last year on the need for a new law, and the commission was not aware of them.
"We are marching just to remind the French that we exist," said Chain Singh, a leader of the Sikh temple in Bobigny, an eastern suburb of the capital.
Sikh spokesmen argue that it is not the turban but their hair - which Sikhs never cut, out of respect for nature - that is a symbol of their religion, and that to strip Sikh boys of the turbans and cloths that cover their topknots would reveal the very symbols that the law is meant to outlaw.
"We feel undressed if we don't wear our turbans," said Simranjit Singh, a Sikh member of the Indian parliament who came to France - along with hundreds of people from all over Europe and from America - for Saturday's rally. "It is humiliating to the core if we are made to take off our turbans."
Luc Ferry, the minister of education, appeared sympathetic to the Sikhs' plight when he testified before a parliamentary commission last month, proposing that Sikh boys in public schools be allowed to wear "discreet" or "transparent" turbans. But he also suggested that beards or bandannas might be banned as manifestations of their wearers' religion, drawing ridicule from critics who wondered whether girls of North African origin might be forbidden from wearing bandannas that white girls would be allowed.
After tying himself in knots before the commission, Mr. Ferry "has nothing more to say" about the turban issue, his spokeswoman, Chantal Desnoues, said. "We are going to let the debate in parliament run its course."
That debate promises to be contentious, given the importance of secularism to France's notion of the values on which the state is based.
The main opposition Socialist Party is demanding that the law ban "visible" religious symbols from public schools, not "conspicuous" ones, which Socialist leaders say is ambiguous. President Chirac's party, many of whose members are close to the Roman Catholic church - which is opposed to the law - is allowing its parliamentarians to vote according to their conscience.
François Bayrou, a junior partner in the governing coalition, said recently he would vote against the law, whose "disadvantages outweigh its advantages," he argued. "We are giving Islamists and militant fundamentalists a golden present ... opening up an extraordinary field that they are exploiting shamelessly."
Recent opinion polls have found that 69 percent of French citizens approve the proposed law, although 53 percent of Muslims oppose it.
Sikhs, however, appear unanimously hostile to the bill, unless they are exempted.
In the debate they hope to provoke they see a chance for France to take a new approach to integration.
"This gives France an opportunity to accommodate the tapestry of diversity within its very rich culture," says Jasdav Singh, who has been appointed by the world Sikh community to negotiate with the French authorities.
He is hopeful an exception will be made for the Sikhs, not least because of his people's history of good relations with the French. Sikh military instructors helped train Napoleon's troops, and thousands of Sikh soldiers (none of them wearing the helmet obligatory for other soldiers) died in the trenches in World War I, defending France against the Germans.
Dhamprit Singh, a teenager who has done all his schooling in France, is adamant. "If this law is passed, I will stop going to school, that is for sure," he said. "I will never take my turban off. I would feel naked without it."
Sujit Kaur, mother of three school-age boys, said her family's future would be uncertain if the law is passed, and applied to her sons. "Leaving the country would be hard, but we don't have the money to pay for private school," she said. "My boys would have to stop school, and then I don't know what we would do."