Official French report urges schools ban headscarf, kippa
PARIS, Dec 11 (AFP) - A committee of French experts on Thursday recommended a ban on Islamic headscarves and Jewish skullcaps in schools in order to reaffirm the country's secular identity, which they warned is in danger of being eroded.
After three months of consultations, the 20-member committee headed by former government minister Bernard Stasi presented its report to President Jacques Chirac who will announce next week whether he supports putting the recommendations into law.
The report also suggested making the Jewish Yom Kippur and the Muslim Eid el-Kabir annual holidays in state schools; the creation of a national school of Islamic studies; and the provision of alternative meals in public canteens to observant Muslims and Jews.
Though the report was into the wider question of French “secularism”, most attention focussed on the explosive issue of Islamic headscarves in schools – which has become a touchstone of the government’s ability to assert the country’s rigid separation of religion and state.
The government estimates that several thousand teenage girls are today wearing the headscarf in school – prompting the anger of many on both the left and right of French politics who believe it is a symbol both of religious extremism and female subservience.
Noting the increasing prevalence of “behaviour prejudicial to the secular principle,” the committee said that the headscarf is “no longer a question of freedom of conscience but of public order.”
It therefore recommended a ban on “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation – including the Islamic headscarf but also the Jewish skullcap and large Christian crosses – while deeming acceptable “discreet” symbols such as Stars of David, Muslim hands of Fatima or small crosses.
After receiving the report Chirac said he would deliver his verdict next Wednesday. “The objective is to guarantee freedom to every French citizen, with the only restriction that the common rules be respected,” he said.
The headscarf debate has created deep divisions in French society, pitting 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 skullcap 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 that is intolerable,” they said.
The debate has been encouraged by the fact that the existing legal framework is open to interpretation.
Currently religious insignia are banned in school if they are reckoned to be “ostentatious” but opponents of the Islamic headscarf say the term is too vague.
Hardliners wanted “visible” signs to be prohibited, and the Stasi committee settled as a compromise with the French word “ostensible” or “conspicuous.”
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.
Subject: France news