Continuing Criticism on French Ban on Wearing Religious Symbols

( [email protected] ) Dec 20, 2003 12:17 PM EST

PARIS - President Jacques Chirac asked parliament to adopt a law instituting the ban on wearing conspicuous religious symbols such as Muslim head scarves, Christian crucifixes, or Jewish skullcaps in public schools. This law will most likely be effective by the new school yea in September.

Now Muslim girls who refuse to remove their head scarves are left with two options – enroll in a private school or drop out.

France holds the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, estimated at some 5 million, and the nation is currently in concern of the rising threat against national cohesion by an assertive minority.

Education Minister Luc Ferry noted the possibility of “very simple and very short" bill directed at banning head scarves in public schools going to parliament as early as February and its most likelihood of pass.

However, the plan brought much criticism from outside France.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi of Iran said in Paris that it would "benefit only fundamentalists." In Washington, the State Department's ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom indicated it should not impinge on freedom of religion.

"All persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in society," John Hanford said.

French authorities believe most Muslim girls will comply with the law. Those who refuse could end up in private schools, most likely Roman Catholic schools, which are partially funded by the state. This will make up the large majority of private schools in France.

"It's a choice that risks being unavoidable in many cases," said Fouad Alaoui, head of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, a powerful umbrella group of Muslim fundamentalists.

"There will be either girls who don't accept expulsion and they will take off their scarves .... or there will be those who don't take them off," Alaoui said. "I will ask them to join private Catholic schools."

Catholic schools represent some 95 percent of private schools in France, according to Gilles du Retail, spokesman for the Catholic Education headquarters whereas there are only two private Muslim schools in France: a high school that opened this year in the northern city of Lille, and a junior high school outside Paris.

Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a member of a presidential commission that studied the issue of whether secularism in France was under threat, said she expects an "offensive" by militant Muslims to be played out in Catholic schools.

"I think there will be more cases of aggressive militancy," she said.

Costa-Lascoux wished more Muslims to wear head scarves outside on the streets as a way to affirm their identity before the ban in public schools.

Catholic leaders were caught up with uncertaintaies about the proposed law.

"Do not think that voting in a law will be the miracle answer for all the difficulties," said a statement Thursday from Monsignor Jean-Pierre Ricard, head of the Catholic Conference of Bishops.

He warned that a law must not "be perceived as a mark of defiance."

Amar Lasfar, head of the Lille-Sud mosque in northern France, predicted that a law "will create a citizen who has disdain for his country, feels excluded, unjustly aggressed, pushed aside."

"A law will solve nothing. It will amplify the problem," he said.