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France may outlaw Muslim veils in schools • Tuesday June 24, 2003

Reuters, June 24, 2003

PARIS (Reuters) – France may pass a new law to ban Muslim veils and other religious symbols in public schools and buildings if people do not respect the republic’s secular policies, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin says.

Stepping into a growing debate about the veils, Raffarin said on Tuesday he hoped that France’s secular tradition — which demands a strict separation between the state and all religions — was strong enough to win respect by all residents.

“But if there is not a consensus, especially on symbols and behaviour linked to religion in public facilities, I will not hesitate to enforce respect for secularism by law,” he told a meeting of French and foreign Freemasons.

France stemmed a wave of veil-wearing in schools about a decade ago but has seen the practice revive in recent years as violence in the Middle East has grown and more French Muslims identified with Islamic causes.

Several conservative legislators have called for an “anti-veil law” but others hesitate because of the ramifications it could have, such as banning yarmulkes for Jewish boys or necklaces with a cross for Christian girls.

French media have been filled in recent days with reports about teenage Muslim girls wearing veils to school and municipal swimming pools setting aside special women’s swimming hours at the request of Muslim groups.

In a well-known school for foreign languages, one newspaper report said, a Muslim woman student refused to answer a teacher because she believed pious Islamic women should hide their voices from strange men as they did their faces.

Muslims complain about discrimination, saying that other religious symbols are quietly allowed in French schools and public buildings while Islamic symbols are not.

About five million of France’s 60 million population are Muslims, with roughly half of them immigrants and half born in France. They made up Europe’s largest Muslim community and the second religion in France after Roman Catholicism.

No exact statistics exist because France’s secular tradition means the national census forms cannot ask about religion.

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