Islamic veil school ban splits ministers

PARIS, Sept 16 (AFP) – The issue of whether France should ban the wearing of Islamic veils and other religious symbols in its schools revealed differences within the government Tuesday when a commission on secularity questioned three ministers.

Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon told the panel he was “favourable to a law forbidding the ostentatious wearing of any religious sign.”

His view, he said, was based on France’s strict secular tradition in the public sector and in the interests of integrating immigrants by instilling French values.

But Education Minister Luc Ferry said that, “to tackle 10 contentious cases a year, it’s maybe going a bit overboard to create a specific law.” Instead, he and his schools minister, Xavier Darcos, said a future law should “positively affirm the principle of secularism”.

President Jacques Chirac set up the commission on secularity in July to rule on whether new legislation was needed to handle a growing debate over religion in schools, particularly Muslim schoolgirls wearing Islamic head scarves.

France’s 60-million strong population counts around five million Muslims, and tensions in some schools have risen recently with teachers ordering Muslim girls to take off their scarves or leave the class.

Ferry estimated there were around 100 cases a year of disputes in schools over the Islamic scarves, with about a dozen of those cases turning into lawsuits.

He admitted that some principals had been handling the issue themselves, without notifying higher authorities, because they understood that “this would create problems for them.”

The education minister also revealed that there were a growing number of cases of anti-Semitism in school, but said they were “obviously not of Muslim origin, but of Islamic fundamentalism.”

In an effort to get around the disapprobation of the scarves in state schools, a private Muslim high school – the first in mainland France – opened in the grounds of the mosque in the northern city of Lille early this month with 12 students. The six girls in the Lycee Averroes all wear veils.

France’s attachment to the separation of religion and state has also caused some turbulence with several current and future EU members which are pushing for a proposed European constitution to make reference to Christianity as the origin of European values.

Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Poland have all backed a call by Pope John Paul II for the reference to be added to a draft constitution unveiled by a convention chaired by French former president Valery Giscard d’Estaing in June.

Chirac, on a visit to Spain last week, rejected that position, saying that Europe also had non-Christian influences.

“France is a lay state and as such she does not have a habit of calling for insertions of a religious nature into constitutional texts,” Chirac told reporters.

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