Home News France agonises over headscarf ban

France agonises over headscarf ban

Published on 10/12/2003

PARIS, Dec 10 (AFP) - The French government faces a potentially explosive decision over whether to ban the Islamic headscarf in schools, following an official report due out Thursday on relations between religion and the state.

With the public divided on what has become a highly-charged argument of principle, President Jacques Chirac must rule whether enshrining France’s secular identity in a new law is worth the risk of alienating the public’s five million-strong Muslim minority.

On Thursday morning a special commission on secularism headed by former minister Bernard Stasi is to deliver its findings to Chirac, following three months of hearings with teachers, religious leaders, sociologists, politicians and historians.

After considering the report, the government will then decide whether to introduce into law a formal prohibition on religious insignia in schools – with Chirac himself hinting that he favours a tough stance against what many fear is the creeping influence of Islamic radicals.

Speaking on a visit to Tunisia on Friday, Chirac said that “France felt in a certain way under attack as result of the display of ostentatious religious signs, which is totally contrary to its secular tradition …. We cannot accept ostentatious signs of religious proselytism, whatever the religion.”

A long-standing debate over Islamic headscarves burst out again earlier this year as a result of a series of high-profile cases in which teenage girls were banned from school for refusing to uncover themselves.

The arguments have overleapt the traditional left-right divide, pitting left-wing champions of French secularism against defenders of immigrants’ rights, and Muslims who support assimilation against other Muslims who want to maintain their separate identity.

The Christian churches came out on Monday against a law, arguing that it would be resented by Muslims and deploring in a statement what they described as the “aggressive secularism” that was pushing the debate.

France’s Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk also issued a plea for tolerance, saying there was a clear difference between wearing a religious sign like the headscarf or the Jewish skull-cap and a desire to overturn the accepted norms of society.

On the other side, the women’s magazine Elle published an open letter from several well-known female personalities calling for a law. “The Islamic veil sends us all back – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – to a discrimination against women which is intolerable,” they said.

Pressure for a new law has been encouraged by the fact that the existing legal framework is vague and open to interpretation.

Ths state council – the country’s highest administrative court – ruled in 1989 that wearing religious insignia in schools is compatible with the principle of secularism as long as it is not done with the aim of “pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda.”

Five years later the government issued a circular saying that “ostentatious” insignia are by their nature proselytising and therefore to be banned.

Then in 1996 the state council ruled again that a school that issued a blanket ban on religious insignia would be transgressing the principle of freedom of expression.

There are estimated to be several hundred girls wearing headscarves in French schools every day, who are able to do so as a result of a flexibility afforded by the current arrangement to individual school-heads. Critics of a new law say it would put an end to this pragmatic approach.

Other countries in Europe have seen similar debates over religious insignia, but the argument is fiercest in France because of the century-old separation of religion and state which is held up as a central part of the country’s political heritage.

 © AFP

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