PARIS - Muslim women in head scarves, journalists in jeans and senators draped in tricolored sashes rallied yesterday in support of two French hostages held in Iraq by kidnappers demanding that France repeal a new ban on the Islamic head scarf in public schools.
The plight of the captive journalists brought together a multiethnic crowd that represented the new France - about 3,000 protesters chanting: "Free the hostages! No blackmail!"
The gathering, in a plaza across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower, was part of a larger display of unity that has temporarily muted a difficult debate over the new French law banning conspicuous religious symbols from public elementary and high schools. It is scheduled to go into effect when schools open Thursday
"Paradoxically, it's exactly the reverse of what the kidnappers would want," said Olivier Roy, an expert on Islam at the Center for National Scientific Research. "The reaction is likely to moderate things, to make the return to school calmer than it would have been."
Nonetheless, France has suddenly and unexpectedly joined the long list of countries victimized by kidnappings in Iraq at an especially painful, complex moment for a country struggling to balance disparate ideas, values and demographics. Any lingering illusions that France might be spared because of its anti-war stance - and French officials were already grimly realistic about their viability as a target of Islamic terrorism - have crumbled.
The hostage ordeal highlights France's struggle with the conflicts and contradictions of its identity: The law, which also applies to Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, was launched as a response to a perceived threat from Muslim fundamentalism to French values in schools and other public institutions.
France's longtime pro-Arab foreign policy helped push it to the forefront of opposition to the war in Iraq. But on the home front, it has maintained a centralized, resolutely secular state, imposing a monolithic French culture over individual ethnic and religious identities.
In addition, France's role as a champion of liberty and tolerance has been tested by the difficult integration of Europe's largest Muslim community, especially as militant Islam and far-right politics have risen rapidly in past years.
Aggravating the tension and uncertainty, the Islamic militants in Iraq released a new video last night in which the two hostages appealed to French leaders to annul the head scarf ban to save their lives. Their captors extended an ultimatum by 24 hours.
There was no immediate reaction from the French government, but earlier yesterday it was unequivocal about keeping the ban. "The law will be applied," spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said.
The events in Iraq have pushed France's conflict with itself onto the international stage. It has become a treacherous drama for the actors involved in the head scarf dispute.
French Cabinet ministers caught in whipsaw currents of international and domestic Islam want to show toughness while looking for solutions that save the two lives in Iraq and keep the peace at home.
Meanwhile, French Muslim leaders are seeking to repudiate terror tactics without ceding political ground. For the moment, even Muslim hard-liners have moderated their tone and found themselves in the unusual position of urging the government to defend the very head scarf ban that they oppose.
A case in point: An outspoken critic of the law, Fuad Allawi of the Union of Islamic Organizations, has backed away from his group's earlier statements suggesting that Muslim girls should defy the ban when school begins.
Yesterday, Allawi condemned the Iraqi militants as kidnappers and extortionists.
But he also stressed that the hostage-taking "should not lead to another blackmail" in which French Muslims feel compelled to refrain from denouncing "the abusive application" of the new law.
As Islamic activists seek to make clear that they do not sympathize with the hostage-takers, French intelligence officials worry that the life-and-death stakes will harden attitudes on both sides. Conflicts could erupt at a time when both educators and the Islamic community were quietly looking for compromises, such as allowing girls to wear bandannas, according to a high-ranking intelligence official.
"Most non-Muslims aren't going to want any kind of concession after what's happened in Iraq," the official said. "And the most radical Islamic elements could get incited by the internationalization of the issue. Even though you'd think most of them would want to be discreet at the moment."
From street-level spies at home to top envoys overseas, the French state poured its full energy into the crisis yesterday. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was in Cairo, Egypt, on the first step of a Middle East swing. His deputy rushed to Baghdad leading a multi-agency crisis management team.
After meeting with Egyptian religious and governmental authorities, Barnier issued a statement calling for the release of the hostages, Christian Chesnot of Radio France International and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro, who were kidnapped on the road from Baghdad to Najaf 11 days ago. A group identifying itself as the Islamic Army in Iraq, which is suspected in the recent abduction and murder of an Italian journalist, claims to be holding the Frenchmen.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.