FEW things seem to scare the French as much as the sight of Muslim schoolgirls wearing head scarves. As schools reopened this fall, the scarves - and what they suggest about Islam's influence in France - dominated headlines and became the object of a controversial directive from the education minister that effectively banned their use in schools.
Many see the scarves, worn by no more than 1,000 of the estimated 200,000 students of Muslim origin who attend French public schools, as an outward sign of discrimination against women. Others believe that allowing the scarves in the classroom is a direct threat to the secular public school system.
The scarves also have come to symbolize the French fear that the ultimate aim of hard-line Muslims is to prevent integration of the country's estimated 5 million Muslims.
Still others, including Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, see a deeper threat in the extreme Islamist movement.
On Aug. 31, Mr. Pasqua summarily expelled 20 Islamic militants he said were actively supporting the Islamic Salvation Front, the Islamist party that is trying to establish an Islamic state in Algeria based on the Iranian model.
The interior minister took the action after five French citizens, including three consular officers, were assassinated in Algeria by Islamic extremists.
``The choice we have made for our society imposes the separation between religion and law,'' says Francois Bayrou, the conservative education minister. ``Our republic has chosen not to allow the development of separate communities in France.''
In mid-September, Mr. Bayrou issued a long-awaited directive to the headmasters of France's 12,000 grammar schools and high schools that, without ever mentioning the word ``head scarf,'' in effect forbids students and teachers from wearing the item on school grounds.
``It is impossible to accept the presence in school of an increasing number of signs which are so ostentatious that they only serve to separate certain pupils from the norms of communal life,'' Bayrou wrote in his directive. ``All forms of discrimination, whether by gender, culture, or religion, should be set aside at the school gates.''
The directive was well-received by the teachers' unions in particular and the French public in general. Public opinion polls show that 86 percent of the French population is opposed to authorizing the use of the scarf in the schools.
But some criticize the directive as discrimination against the Islamic veil while allowing students to carry more discreet religious objects, such as small crucifixes.
In an example of the uneasiness the Bayrou directive has caused within France's Muslim community, police were called in on Oct. 3 to prevent 22 Muslim girls wearing the scarves from entering the Faidherbe high school in the northern industrial city of Lille. ``Stop the aggression against Islam,'' read some of the banners carried by about 100 persons who demonstrated in support of the girls.
Last month, 1,200 students at the Romain-Rolland de Goussainville school north of Paris called a one-day strike after the headmaster, arguing that he was simply applying the directive, prevented four girls who refused to shed their veils from attending classes. ``They came here to learn, not to be judged with regards to their manner of dressing,'' commented one female student at the school.
Other critics, including the prestigious newspaper Le Monde, worry that the education minister's directive could aggravate a situation that it believes is limited to just a few schools. The newspaper argued that the directive risks multiplying the number of young girls excluded from the educational system, which it said is perhaps the only way of ensuring their emancipation.
The issue of the Islamic veil first arose in 1989, when several young Muslim girls in the working-class Paris suburb of Creil began wearing it to school. With the extreme right-wing National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen gaining strength based on its anti-immigration policies, the affair caused a melodrama in France.
THEN-EDUCATION minister Lionel Jospin refused to set policy on the issue and turned the matter over to the Council of State - which advises the government on the constitutionality of proposed laws and directives - for a ruling. That body, trying to balance the principle of a secular school system with that of individual liberties, decided to allow each school to settle the issue as it saw fit.
But in 1992 the Council of State in effect overturned its 1989 ruling by ordering a school to reintegrate three young women who had been prohibited from attending classes because they refused to remove the veil.
``Those decisions are bitter for the teachers and the directors of the schools, who are on the front lines and have the impression that we do not give them the means to deal realistically with this type of incident,'' Bayrou admitted recently.
Critics say that, by turning the matter over to the Council of State, Mr. Jospin abdicated the government's responsibility to protect public schools from religious influence and effectively allowed Islamists to continue ``demolishing the secular public school system,'' in the words of weekly newsmagazine Le Point.