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Can a Sikh be a Frenchman?

March 9, 2006

Paris - On December 5th 2005 The French High Court ruled that Sikh Shingara Singh Mann had the right to wear his turban for his driving license identity photo, overturning the Ministry of Transport’s earlier decision forbidding this practice, but within 24 hours of the decision, the Ministry of issued a circular expressly forbidding turbans to be worn in drivers licenses photographs.

“Not only we are deprived of the benefit of our relative victory in court, but we have been deprived of the right to democratic debate,” said Kudrat Singh, Director of United Sikhs in France, and spokesman for many in the Sikh community. “This is an example of oppression and discrimination which has not been seen in France for decades, and calls into question whether one can be both Sikh and French."

Singh, a French citizen who embraced Sikhism, sees this issue as a violation of the constitutional right to freely choose one’s own religion.

During the hearing before the Conseil d’Etat the Sikhs’ religious reasons of for wearing turbans in their drivers license photos, citing articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, were found to be “legitimate.”

“The French government’s actions denies us our rights to justice,” said Singh. “Occurring as it did on the hundredth anniversary of the implementation of secularism in France, it shows a very disturbing lack of sensitivity to the ethnic character of our religion, and prevents our observance of our religious beliefs.”

Mejindarpal Kaur, Director of United Sikhs in Europe, stated, “The global Sikh community is shocked at the attitude of the French government.”

Patrice Spinosi, one of Singh's lawyers, intends to take the case back to the Conseil d’Etat, and from there to the European Court, if need be, to protect his client’s fundamental right of freedom of religion and ensure that European anti-discrimination legislation is respected.

"A Sikh can be very easily identified in his turban.” Said Spinosi. “On the other hand making him be photographed with his turban off defeats its very purpose as a means of identification, since no one would recognize him as the man with the long hair in the photo.”

Sikhs have been caught up recently in legal conflicts with the French government. The small, usually-quiet community began making its voice heard after France passed a law banning conspicuous religious symbols in public schools in 2004.

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