2003: France to Ban Pupils’ Religious Dress
2003: France to Ban Pupils' Religious Dress
Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols are almost certain to be banned from French schools and public buildings after a specially appointed commission told the government yesterday that legislation was needed to defend the secular nature of the state.
The 20-member group, appointed by President Jacques Chirac and headed by the national ombudsman, Bernard Stasi, recommended that all "conspicuous" signs of religious belief - specifically including Jewish skullcaps, oversized Christian crosses and Islamic headscarves - be outlawed in state-approved schools.
The report, compiled from six months of study and more than 120 hearings, also recommended that the laws should include a clause requiring "the strict neutrality of all public service employees".
Some Muslim women had reportedly been insisting on their husbands accompanying them at all times in hospital and accepting only female doctors. The report said the legislation must remind all health service users that "it is forbidden to reject a healthcare worker, and that the rules of hygiene must be respected".
In a gesture of respect to "all spiritual options", however, the report said the Jewish and Muslim holy days of Yom Kippur and Eid should be made official school holidays, and companies should consider ways of allowing employees to take off the religious holiday of their choice.
Mr Chirac, who hinted last week that he favoured a law protecting France's lay republic, said he would make his decision known next week.
"I will be guided by respect for republican principles and the demands of national unity and the rallying of the French people," he said.
The question of whether a "secularism law" is desirable or necessary - particularly to deal with the steadily increasing number of Muslim girls wanting to wear headscarves at school - may seem abstract, or even absurd, to those used to British or American notions of multiculturalism.
In France, where secularism is a constitutional guarantee and everyone, in the eyes of the republic, is supposed to be equally French regardless of ethnic or religious differences, the issue has dominated media, public and political debate for several months.
The origin of the debate, which has split French society along unfamiliar lines, is considered to be the radicalisation of French Islam.
Mr Stasi acknowledged as much, saying the proposed law aimed to preserve constitutional secularism and counter "forces trying to destabilise the republic", a clear reference to Islamic fundamentalism.
But he stressed that the law was not directed at France's mainly moderate Muslim community of 5 million. Its aim was to give all religions a more equal footing.
"Muslims must understand that secularism is a chance for Islam," Mr Stasi said. "Secularism is the separation of church and state, but it is also the respect of differences."
It is not currently illegal to wear religious symbols in French state schools, which are considered the cornerstone of the republic and a place where its core values must be transmitted and enforced.
On a case-by-case basis, however, headteachers can suspend or expel pupils wearing "ostentatious" religious signs that "constitute an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda".
The commission agreed with most teachers that the rules have placed too great a burden on them. The main teachers' union, the SNES, said yesterday that the proposals did not go far enough to promote secularism in schools.
Also backing a law on the wearing of headscarves is a big majority of MPs from right and left, and more than half the French population.
Elle magazine published a petition signed by 60 prominent French women this week calling for a ban on "this visible symbol of the submission of women".
Leaders of the French Catholic and Jewish communities have expressed opposition to legislation.
Joseph Sitruk, the chief rabbi of France, said yesterday it would be an "aberration" to try to "muzzle religions under the pretext of secularism".
The National Union of Muslim Students said a law would "inevitably be seen and experienced as a persecution aimed exclusively at the Muslim community".
Kamal Kabtane, the head of the Grand Mosque of Lyon, said Muslims would respect a law on headscarves, but added: "This will resolve nothing at all. It will only add to the confusion."