French Panel Favors Ban on Head Scarves
1 hour, 46 minutes ago
By ELAINE GANLEY, Associated Press Writer
PARIS - A presidential commission on Thursday backed a ban on Islamic head scarves in public schools stepping into the wrenching debate over how to preserve the country's secular identity while integrating France's Muslim population, the largest in Western Europe.
If it becomes law, the measure would also bar other conspicuous religious symbols, including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. The commission spent six months studying the issue and held 120 hearings, collecting testimony from experts across Europe.
French President Jacques Chirac, who in the past has made clear his opposition to head scarves in the classroom, is expected on Wednesday to announce in an address to the nation whether he supports enacting the panel's recommendations into law.
For nearly 15 years, France has debated the issue, but it has taken on new life during the past two years with the expulsion of dozens of girls from school for refusing to remove their scarves.
Bernard Stasi, who headed the commission, said the proposed law was aimed at keeping France's strict secular underpinnings intact and at countering "forces that are trying to destabilize the country," a reference to Islamic fundamentalists.
Stasi said the commission's was not discriminating against France's Muslim community but sought to give all religions a more equal footing.
The panel recommended a ban from classrooms of all "obvious" political and religious symbols including Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcap and large Christian crucifixes. More discreet symbols such as small crosses would be acceptable, it said.
France covets its secularism won nearly a century ago after a long battle with the Roman Catholic Church and fears that this constitutionally guaranteed principle is being undermined by some communities, particularly Muslims.
A more basic fear is that the head scarf reflects the rise of militant Islam in France.
One panel member, researcher Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, cited a Moroccan girl whose father was paid $600 a trimester to ensure that his daughter wore a head scarf to school.
Muslims represent some 7 percent of France's 60 million people while the country's Jewish community is about 1 percent of the population, also Western Europe's largest.
Until now, the only policy on head scarves in schools comes from The Council of State, France's highest administrative body, which has said they can be banned if they are of an "ostentatious character," a judgment left to each school.
Head scarves are already forbidden for people working in the public sector, but that rule which is not a law is occasionally broken. A Muslim employee of the city of Paris was recently suspended for refusing to take off her scarf or shake men's hands.
The Muslim head scarf is but one aspect of the conflict between religion and the secular culture, the panel found. Without naming a particular religion, the report cited examples of male students refusing to take oral exams from female teachers or men refusing to allow their wives to be treated by male doctors.
Such behavior is often the work of "organized groups testing the resistance of the Republic," the report said.
There also has been an alarming rise in anti-Semitic attacks and teaching about the Holocaust "becomes impossible" in some classrooms, it added.
The report did offer some concessions to religion, proposing the addition of one Jewish and one Muslim holiday to the school calendar and creating a national institute to study Islam.
Religious leaders of all stripes reacted cautiously.
The Conference of Bishops of France said it would reserve judgment until Chirac announces his conclusions.
The Protestant Federation of France said the report "seems acceptable" because the scope of the report enables "the principles of secularism in 21st century France to be clarified."
In a letter earlier this week to Chirac, the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches said the nation needs to do a better job of integrating Muslims into French society, and an anti-head scarf law would not achieve that goal.
Moise Cohen, president of the Consistoire of Paris, which directs religious Jewish life, said Thursday he opposes a head scarf law because it could be viewed by Muslims as discriminatory and "exacerbate emotions."
The French Council for the Muslim Faith, an umbrella group representing France's Muslims, appeared to reject the commission's report, although in mild terms. The council said it agreed with the positions of the Jewish and Christian religious leaders opposing the ban.
On a state visit last week to Tunisia, President Chirac told a group of high school students that wearing a veil in France was seen as "a sort of aggression."
The headscarf debate has also emerged elsewhere in Europe along with Muslim immigration.
Germany's 16 states are split over whether to introduce bans on head scarfs. Some argue it's not necessary, but Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg this year introduced legislation that would prohibit the wearing of headscarves in schools.
In 1999, thousands of Muslims in Turin, Italy, marched to demand that women be allowed to wear veils in photos for official identity documents. While such headscarves aren't banned, a woman's face must be visible in official photos.