The country's ban on religious attire and symbols in public schools — widely supported in French polls — was aimed at quelling fears of Islamic separatism and ultimately extremism. But Muslim and non-Muslim critics say the real barriers to assimilation are a lack of education and employment opportunities as well as fundamentalism.

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MARSEILLE, France — Headmaster Georges Turrin was stunned when one of his best students at his tough, mostly immigrant high school refused to remove her head scarf at the start of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

“I said, ‘You cannot come in then,’ ” he said. “The law is not negotiable.”

The standoff over the controversial new law banning religious symbols in public schools continued until Turrin sat down with the girl’s parents and discovered what was at issue: Her father, an immigrant from the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, was pressuring the 17-year-old to marry a man he had chosen for her. His insistence that she wear the scarf — and leave school — was a means to that end.

“To sanction these girls, who are struggling between the demands of their parents and the demands of French society, is simply to victimize them a second time,” Turrin said.

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But even in this vibrantly multicultural port, where Arabic mingles with French and couscous is as popular as the baguette, Turrin’s view is a minority one. Polls show that 70 percent of the French public supports the law that took effect in September because they see it as an assertion of secular identity in a country wrestling with ways to integrate Europe’s largest Muslim population — an estimated 5 million people drawn mostly from a post-colonial diaspora from North Africa.

Public opinion also was hardened by a handful of stories about Muslim girls who have been beaten, gang-raped and, in one case, burned to death by young men enforcing their notion of Islamic codes in the high-rise ghettos that ring most French cities, and by growing fears about the links between radical Islam and terrorism.

“Citadels of identity”

“The issue is not a piece of cloth,” said Gilles Kepel, a member of the blue-ribbon commission that proposed the law banning what are called “ostentatious religious symbols” from public schools. “The issue is building defensive citadels of identity. When you look at the people who are arrested for terrorist actions, you see how step by step, this evolution started with their sporting jellabas and growing beards. Then, they severed cultural links. And then they became easy prey to be recruited by these jihadist generals.”

“Either you nip this thing in the bud, or you allow the development of a separate society until one day, one of these kids stabs a Theo van Gogh,” he said, referring to the murder of the Dutch filmmaker last month by a Dutch-Moroccan radical.

But such arguments are denounced as wrongheaded, if not racist, by many French Muslims and at least one dissenting member of the commission studying integration.

“The law is catastrophic,” said Bruno Etienne, a panel member who is an authority on Islam in Europe. “The real barrier to Muslim integration into French society is not the head scarf, but discrimination, jobs and the failure of the educational system.”

France’s tough approach sets it apart from the rest of Europe, which until now has taken a much more laissez-faire attitude toward assimilation. But in this largely secular country, the principle of laicite — a strict separation of church and state — is touted as the hallmark of a democratic republic.

“The concept of laicite is not anti-religious,” said Turrin. “But it asserts that religion is a private issue.” It also asserts that the mission of the public schools is to inculcate the country’s children with the French values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Perhaps because of its own history of terrorist violence, France has taken more hard-line approaches against radical Islam in other ways as well. Over the past two years, the government has expelled a dozen Islamic clerics for promoting hatred and religious extremism, including an Algerian cleric, who was quoted as saying that polygamy was acceptable and men could beat their wives.

And last week, the French interior minister announced plans to “strongly encourage” imams to take university classes in French law and society starting next fall.

But it is the ban on head scarves that has become a lightning rod for Muslims here and throughout Europe, many of whom say they are being demonized in a rising tide of Islamophobia.

“I’m upset and I’m outraged,” said Julia Boukara, 34, an American-born Muslim who lives here with her Algerian husband and 5-1/2-year-old daughter. “I started wearing the veil because I thought it was the right thing to do — not because I wanted to join some sort of team. It serves to cover my hair and my ears and my neck. The idea is that a woman’s beauty shouldn’t be available for public consumption.”

Boukara sees the origins of the law in old French enmities against Arabs that have been re-ignited by fears of terrorism.

“In my daughter’s little preschool, they bring Santa Claus in to celebrate Christmas, and every Friday in the cafeteria they only serve fish,” she said. “Is that secular? No. So this is an obvious targeting of Muslims.”

A divided minority

Yet despite protests earlier this year by tens of thousands of people, including women who covered their hair in scarves made of the French flag, the Muslim community itself is deeply divided about the new law.

“It’s shameful to see these young girls who appear on TV wearing scarves and making speeches,” said Salima Guenfoud, 44, who wears her own hair in a chic bob. “They don’t represent anyone but themselves. They are being manipulated for political purposes.”

On the broad Cours Belsunce in the Arab quarter here, Guenfoud walks arm in arm with her mother, Cherifa Attaf, 67, who is covered head to toe in a shapeless gray gown, her forehead scarcely visible under a white scarf.

Attaf, who recently went on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca because of her own religious convictions, said she is comfortable when her daughters accompany her to the beach in their bikinis. “We live in France, so everyone does as they want to,” she said matter-of-factly. “I dress as I choose. My daughters dress as they choose.”

For now, the head-scarf debate is in a holding pattern as legal challenges are heard. The much-anticipated conflagration on the first day of school never materialized — in large part because protests were canceled after two French journalists were kidnapped in Iraq by men demanding the French government rescind the law.

“What happened to the kidnappers’ dismay is that the rank and file of French citizens of Muslim descent publicly denied those people the right to speak in their name,” said Kepel. “They demonstrated in the streets. They went on television. They said we’re all Frenchmen and we identify with these journalists.”

When schools opened in September, only 639 of an estimated million Muslim students showed up in religious symbols — and most were persuaded to remove them voluntarily, according to the French Ministry of Education.

As of last month, 40 had been expelled — 36 Muslim girls and four Sikh boys who wore turbans. Lawsuits related to many of those cases have been filed.

The word on the street

Yet if the veils are banned in school, they remain a strong presence on the streets. At a weekend market in Arnavaux, hundreds of veiled women crowded stalls selling halal meat, Arabic caftans and sweatshirts, while men sat in all-male cafes drinking espresso.

“I don’t hear people talking about the head scarf,” said Salah Bariki, an Algerian immigrant who is the mayor’s liaison to Muslim associations and who holds court at the market. “What I hear most is people telling me they need a job, or they need a place to live.”

Bariki believes that most Muslims in Marseille support the law, although they worry about being stigmatized as a result of the actions of a small minority. The majority are not religious, he said. And many are also anxious about the growing influence of fundamentalist imams, many of whom arrived in the late 1980s and early ’90s as refugees from Algeria.

“They took over the local mosques from the older people and began to promote a fundamentalist Islam that did not exist before,” Bariki said.

They promoted the veil, as well as the notion that school girls shouldn’t participate in sports, or study biology. “They are very militant,” he said. “They don’t want to integrate into French society.”

Hands tied

Turrin, the headmaster, despairs of some of the violations of his female students, including cases of rape and forced marriage. He said he refuses to allow girls to be excused from biology classes but is powerless to mandate their participation in sports when 20 to 30 percent come with doctors’ notes.

In the meantime, he counts small triumphs as victories.

He celebrated when the girl suspended for wearing the veil struck a deal to return to school. She promised her father she would marry the man he had selected and, in return, he permitted her to remove her head scarf so she could finish high school.

“When you see that a girl can be forced to marry against her will, it confirms that the head scarf is a negligible problem,” Turrin said. “Nonetheless, I told her she made the right decision. She’s a good student who wants to be doctor. And I told her that she can be a doctor.”