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France begins expelling students who wear head scarves

.- French schools have begun expelling Muslim girls for wearing headscarves to class in defiance of a new law banning religious symbols.

The expulsion of at least five girls since Tuesday were the first since the law went into effect at the start of the academic year, Sept. 2.

The explulsions were kept low-key for fear of endangering two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Christian Malbrunot, who were taken hostage in Iraq by the Islamic Army of Iraq. They are in their third month of captivity, and their captors have demanded that the law be abolished. The French government refused.

More expulsions were expected this week. Most are Muslim girls, but Sikh boys refusing to remove their turbans also risk being expelled.

Those expelled have the right to appeal to the head of the local school board. If they are under 16 - the legal age for leaving school - the expelled students must continue their education at a private school, by correspondence or other means.

Education Minister Francois Fillon expressed satisfaction Tuesday with resolving some 600 cases at the start of the school year, mostly through dialogue.

Critics contend the law contravenes fundamental rights and risks stigmatizing members of France's five million Muslims, Western Europe's largest Muslim population.

Authorities say the law is intended to uphold France's constitutional principle of secularism. They also view the law as a way to fight rising Muslim fundamentalism in France and to protect the rights of women.

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