LILLE (France) - The headmistress stood at the front of the room on the first day of school and told her 10 10th-graders to write legibly, refrain from idle chatter and avoid crazy stunts that could cause accidents.
But this was no ordinary school opening. The students are taking part in a historic, if uneasy, educational experiment: the opening of Lycee Averroes, the first Muslim high school in France.
The goal of the school, which began its first term this month, is to provide Muslims with an alternative to public school education, like those that French Catholics, Protestants and Jews have long enjoyed.
The challenge for France is to preserve the country's secular identity as codified under a century-old law, meet the demands of its second-largest religious community and discourage religious and ethnic separatism all at the same time.
The six boys in the class were dressed in unremarkable casual clothing.
But the four girls had covered their hair and necks with well-secured scarves, a practice normally banned in public schools.
They hid the shape of their bodies under dark-coloured knee-length coats and pants.
Ms Sylvie Taleb, 43, the headmistress, her hair and neck swathed in a pale scarf trimmed in pearls, is also a pioneer of sorts.
A French-born convert to Islam and an expert on Flaubert, she assumed the new post after teaching French at a local Catholic school for 17 years. She had never worn a scarf earlier.
SCHOOL WILL FOLLOW NATIONAL CURRICULUM
THE Lycee Averroes high school in Lille, named after a 12th-century Spanish-Arabian philosopher, consists of three unadorned classrooms and a science laboratory - so far unequipped - on the third floor of Al-Imane Mosque.
Students have access to the mosque's library and prayer hall, and eventually the school will serve lunches that conform to Islamic dietary rules. Tuition is US$1,100 (S$1,900) a year.
The school and mosque officials emphasised that the school would uphold the strict French rule on 'secular' teaching and follow the national curriculum.
Courses in Arabic, Islamic culture and history will be offered as electives.
Quranic studies will be taught for only one hour a week. A female physical education teacher will conduct co-educational gym classes.
There is no requirement that the students be Muslim - though all of them now are - or that the girls go to school veiled.
The idea for the school dates back to 1994, when the mosque began educating 19 Muslim girls after they were expelled from public school for refusing to remove their scarves.
As an act of defiance against the state, the mosque set up its own unofficial high school, asked for volunteer teachers from the community and helped the girls to finish their education.
The problem was, and is, that no clear regulation on veiling in public schools has ever existed. It has been left to the discretion of individual schools to decide, and most ban the scarves. -- New York Times
No social issue is more pressing for France's centre-right government than the integration of the country's Muslims into the fabric of French society.
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has warned that France might have to pass a law imposing secular rule, and President Jacques Chirac has formed a commission to make recommendations on the issue of the nation's secular identity by the end of the year.
The creation of Muslim schools financed and monitored by the state - like other private religious schools in France - is intended to provide Muslim youth with the same core education that celebrates the republic's values as do public schools.
But there are concerns that it could contribute to the isolation and even radicalisation of Muslim students as well.
'The problem is not that there are Muslim high schools, it is that there are fundamentalist groups on the edges,' said Ms Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a specialist on French secularism and a member of the commission.
'They recruit among the most intelligent students, the ones with the best grades,' she added.
She said any Muslim school had to be monitored carefully to ensure that there is no corporal punishment, which she said is allowed in certain Quranic schools; that freedom of conscience is respected; and that there is no 'denunciation or even censorship' of subjects for religious reasons.
Private religious schools in the country must conform to strict rules, including the use of the same core curriculum, safety regulations and qualifications for teachers and administrators as any public school.
They are allowed to teach religious subjects only as electives. Prayer must be optional.
If they meet those requirements, they are eligible for state aid after five years.
French officials have expressed anxiety that the Lille mosque is affiliated with the powerful Union of Islamic Organisations in France.
That group preaches a strict conservative interpretation of Islam that emphasises personal purification and grassroots proselytising, especially among poor Muslim youth, and aims at having an impact on every aspect of a Muslim's life.
It has encouraged its daughters to test the limits of restrictions on scarves in school by partly covering their heads with bandanas or ribbons.
'The Lycee Averroes is not a religious school,' said Mr Amar Lasfar, the director of the Al-Imane Mosque where the school is located.
'It's a general education high school, except that it exists in a Muslim culture and with a Muslim sensibility. I don't see any risk of deviance or of community isolation.'
He called the opening of the school 'a great day for secularism' and 'a great day for Islam in France'. -- New York Times