France split by proposal to ban Islamic headscarves and crucifixes in schools

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac must make a potentially explosive decision in the next few days whether to demand a new law banning Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols from French state schools.

The issue has been causing strong debate for weeks, splintering French society far from the usual left-right lines.

All Christian churches in France issued a joint statement yesterday urging M. Chirac to resist pressure from "militant secular" forces for an outright ban 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 "pro" headscarf forces also range from Muslim groups and anti-racist campaigners to the racist National Front (which is reluctant to lose a vote-generating issue). The "anti"-scarf forces include most mainstream parties of the left and right.

A 20-strong commission of inquiry, set up by M. Chirac in the summer to try to resolve a 15-year-old quarrel, will deliver its findings tomorrow or the following day.

The President hinted last week that he was now in favour of some sort of legislation to protect the principle, enshrined in law since 1905, that France is a "lay" society which allows freedom of worship but endorses no religion. This may seem an abstract and unnecessary dispute to outsiders but the struggle between "laicity" and "clericalism" has been raging, on and off, in France since the French Revolution in 1789.

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 so long as they are not "obtrusive". Responsibility for interpreting this judgment falls on individual schools and school districts. There have been a number of confrontations between parents, pupils and schools in recent years - growing in intensity with the rise of militant Islam.

The debate is further confused by the habit of the French media and politicians of talking about la voile or "the veil". The real issue is whether Islamic girls and women can wear foulards (headscarves) in state institutions - principally schools but also hospitals and government offices - and, if so, how ostentatious the scarves can be.

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. There is no question of banning headscarves in public places, just in state institutions.