France On Her Way to Decide on Ban of Religious Symbols in Public Schools

( [email protected] ) Dec 11, 2003 11:08 AM EST

In next few days, the decision will be made whether to legalize banning Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols including Christian crufixes in French state schools.

France is facing unusual split over this issue, which has been going on for weeks.

The "pro"-headscarf forces range from Muslim groups and anti-racist campaigners to the racist National Front (which is reluctant to lose a vote-generating issue) and The "anti"-scarf forces include most mainstream parties of the left and right.

All Christian churches in France issued a joint statement yesterday urging President Jacques Chirac to consent with "militant secular" forces for banning on headscarves in state schools, which would also mean a ban on crucifixes and kippas.

The women's magazine Elle published a petition, signed by leading French feminists and actresses, attacking the Islamic headscarf as "an intolerable discrimination against women" and calling for a law to reinforce the principle of a "lay" republic but also the principle of equality between the sexes.

The President mentioned last week that he was now in favor of some sort of legislation to protect the principle calling France a "lay" society, which allows freedom of worship but endorses no religion. Since the French Revolution in 1789, the struggle between “laicity” and “clericalism” has been ongoing, on and off.

Under a 1989 ruling by the administrative appeal court, the Conseil d'Etat, headscarves and other signs of religious faith are allowed in state schools as long as they are not "obtrusive." Deciding whether or not it is “obtrusive” is solely under the discretion of the individual school and school districts.

The real issue is whether Islamic girls and women can wear headscarves in state institutions, including hospitals and government offices besides schools – if so how ostentatious the scarves can be.

There have been a number of confrontations between parents, students, schools in recent years - growing in intensity with the rise of militant Islam.

The committee of inquiry, run by the centre-right politician Bernard Stasi, must decide whether to recommend a law banning all religious symbols and, if so, where that law should apply – is it going to be applied just in state institutions?