PARIS - France's plan to bar religious symbols from state schools slid into confusion Tuesday after the education minister said a proposed ban on Muslim veils could also outlaw beards if they were judged to be a sign of faith.
Opposition politicians derided the government plan as misguided and some of President Jacques Chirac's conservative allies said they would abstain or vote against the law meant to stem growing Islamist influence among some of France's five million Muslims.
In another sign of the political tangle the veil debate has caused, a senior French official issued a rare public rebuke to Pope John Paul II for saying some politicians' efforts to ban faith from the public sphere endangered religious freedom in Europe.
Education Minister Luc Ferry made the surprising statement about disciplining bearded students in a National Assembly legal committee hearing about the draft law on the ban due to be debated next month.
Discussing the plan to remove Islamic headscarves from state schools, he told a communist deputy who asked about a pupil with a beard: "As soon as it becomes a religious sign and the code is apparent, it would fall under this law."
Pious Muslim men wear beards in obedience to the Prophet Mohammad, who is said to have instructed them to do so...