Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Chirac backs ban on headscarves

Chirac: "We cannot let secularism weaken"

French President Jacques Chirac has voiced support for a law that would ban the wearing of headscarves in schools.

He was giving his reaction to last week's report by a government commission, which proposed a ban on conspicuous religious signs in schools.

Jewish skull-caps and large Christian crosses would be affected, as well as headscarves worn by Muslim girls.

Some religious leaders have objected to the idea, but polls suggest a majority of voters would back it.

"Discreet" medallions and pendants which merely confirm a person's religious faith would be allowed.

No holiday

"Secularism is one of the great successes of the Republic," Mr Chirac said in an address to the nation.

"It is a crucial element of social peace and national cohesion. We cannot let it weaken."

Mr Chirac dropped another controversial proposal made by the commission - for school holidays to mark the Muslim feast of Eid el-Kabir and the Jewish Yom Kippur.

The idea sent shockwaves through the centre-right government which is currently drafting legislation to make state employees work on the Christian holiday of Pentecost in order to raise money for care for the elderly.

The commission, headed by former minister Bernard Stasi, consulted a wide cross-section of public opinion, including teachers, religious leaders, sociologists and politicians before handing in the report to the president on Thursday.

Although it dealt with the wider subject of French secularism, debate on the issue has focused on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools.

Public opinion

France has the largest Muslim population in the European Union, with around five million people, and several thousand teenage girls are estimated to wear headscarves to classes.

The spirit and general tone of the report stigmatise one section of the nation, and take no account of the reality of Islam in France

French Council for the Muslim Religion

The issue has led to a number of celebrated cases where girls have been suspended or expelled for wearing headscarves to school.

A survey published by Le Parisien newspaper on Wednesday suggested that public opinion has swung behind a ban on religious signs in schools and colleges.

It suggests that 69% of French citizens now support such a law, compared with 55% before the publication of the Stasi commission report.

But according to the same poll, only 39% of French Muslims favoured a ban on religious signs.

The survey questioned 1,004 French people over the age of 18 on 14 and 15 December.

The French Council for the Muslim Religion - recently created as Muslims' first ever representative body in France - said it regretted the report's recommendations.

"The spirit and general tone of the report stigmatise one section of the nation, and take no account of the reality of Islam in France," it said.

News source: BBC

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