Chirac panel calls for school ban on Muslim headscarves

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The Independent Online

Islamic headscarves and other "ostensible" religious symbols should be banned from state schools in France, a long-awaited commission of inquiry recommended yesterday.

The 20-strong commission, set up by President Jacques Chirac to consider ways of defending "secular" French society from religious "excesses", also suggested ways of making people of non-Christian faiths feel more welcome in France.

Muslim and Jewish festivals should be declared official holidays in French schools, in the same way as Christian holy days, the commission said.

President Chirac will give his official response to the recommendations next week. He is expected to accept their broad thrust, which was also welcomed yesterday by most mainstream political parties and by anti-racism campaigners.

Islamic groups protested that the proposals were unnecessary and clearly discriminatory, despite the efforts made by the commission to make provisions for French people of Islamic faith.

One of the main French teaching unions said that the suggestions would cause more problems than they solved, causing many more female pupils to be excluded from state schools.

Arguments about the wearing of headscarves in state schools have erupted periodically in France over the past 14 years and came to a head in recent months with much-publicised suspensions of pupils in Strasbourg and the northern suburbs of Paris.

The dispute may seem arcane but the "laicité" - or secularity - of state institutions is regarded as an important, founding principle of the French Republic.

There has been anguished debate over whether allowing teenage schoolgirls to wear headscarves - often misleadingly described as "voiles" or veils - amounts to a dangerous concession to fundamentalism.

Feminists have attacked headscarves as anti-women. Others, on both the right and left, see them as a threat to another cherished Republican principle: that France is monolithic and indivisible and should not be carved up into religious or ethnic "communities".

The dispute has cut through normal left-right divides. Many on the left believe that Muslim schoolgirls should have the right to wear scarves, as a matter of personal liberty.

Politicians on the right - and the main Christian churches of France - have criticised the idea of a new law as an example of "fundamentalist secularism", or religion-baiting.

Under the legal status quo, "ostentatious" religious or political symbols are banned in state schools.

Interpretation of the word "ostentatious" is left to individual schools and school districts. This has led to dozens of disputes about what forms of headscarves, if any, are permissible.

The commission, led by a centrist politician from the Champagne region, Bernard Stasi, considered various new words and formulae before coming up withe word "ostensible". The commission said that this should rule out headscarves but also large, visible crucifixes and Jewish skullcaps or kippas.

Other less visible signs of devotion, such as small copies of the Koran, would be allowed. Mouloud Aounit, leader of a moderate Muslim organisation, said the proposals would be "pointless and ineffective" and were clearly "aimed at one religion above all, Islam".

The Union of Jewish Students said that it "applauded" the proposals "with both hands". In the preamble to its proposals, the Stasi commission said: "The French Republic is built on laicity ... To allow every citizen to feel represented by the Republic, and to allow all citizens to live together, the institutions of the state must be protected from the influence of any religious spiritual viewpoint ... This ideal has moulded our history."