Dozens of prominent French women, including the actresses Emmanuelle Béart and Isabelle Adjani and the designer Sonia Rykiel, have issued a plea to Jacques Chirac, the president, to ban traditional Muslim veils as a “visible symbol of the submission of women”.
The petition, which was signed by more than 60 of France’s most influential women and published in this week’s edition of French Elle, attacks the Islamic headscarf as “an intolerable discrimination against women” and calls for a law to reinforce the principle of a “lay” republic.
It also calls for the principle of equality between the sexes to be reinforced in law.
It is the latest salvo in the increasingly bitter battle over the wearing of Muslim head-scarves in France, which prides itself on the strict secularism of its state institutions.
The issue is expected to come to a head tomorrow, when Mr Chirac is due to receive a long awaited special report on enforcing secularism which observers believe could prepare the way for a total ban on head-scarves in French institutions such as schools, hospitals and the civil service.
The report by a 20-strong commission, headed by the former centre-right minister Bernard Stasi, is the result of months of hearings with teachers, religious leaders, sociologists, politicians and historians.
Weighing in on the debate last week, Mr Chirac told pupils at the French Lycée in Tunis he found “something aggressive” in the wearing of traditional Muslim veils.
He said: “We cannot accept ostentatious signs of religious proselytism whatever they are and whatever the religion. In our public schools, a veil has something aggressive about it which presents a problem of principle, even if only a small minority wears it.”
The veil has become a highly sensitive topic in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Muslim females argue that banning it would infringe on their freedom of religion, while critics say that banning a bit of cloth will ignore the root cause of the cultural conflict, the failure to integrate France’s five million Muslims – mostly of North African origin – into society.
The issue has been smouldering for more than a decade, occasionally triggering debate when a school has expelled a girl for insisting on wearing the veil. But over the last year, confrontations between parents, pupils and teachers have grown increasingly acrimonious while growing concern about Islamic fundamentalism, women’s rights and Muslim immigration has catapulted the subject into the headlines.
In the last three months, nearly 100 cases arguing for a girl’s right to wear a headscarf to school have been brought before the French ministry of education.
The case of Lila and Alma Levy, Muslim sisters who were expelled from a state school in Paris for refusing to uncover their heads, became a cause célèbre. Their father, a Jewish human rights lawyer married to a non-practising Muslim, tried to fight the decision with the help of an anti-racist organisation but lost when a court upheld his daughters’ expulsion on 10 October.
Two weeks ago, a 12-year-old Turkish girl was also expelled from her state school in eastern France because she refused to remove her Islamic headscarf.
The issue has divided the country. Human rights campaigners argue banning the veil contravenes the new European human rights charter and interferes with constitutional guarantees of liberty.
“They claim that nobody should force a women to wear the hijab [veil],” says Lila Levy, 18. “But how can they force us to remove it?
“If they really cared about our freedom they should let us be free to decide whether we want to wear it or not.”
But polls show a majority of voters favour a ban. Political momentum against the veil picked up last week, when 30 MPs came out in favour of an even more explicit ban than Mr Chirac hinted at.
However, some conservative politicians have expressed reservations about a total ban on religious symbols since it would also bar necklaces bearing a Christian cross or Jewish scull caps.
Their concern is shared by all Christian churches in France, who issued a joint statement on Monday urging Mr Chirac to resist pressure from “militant secular” forces for a ban. Pressure for a new law has been encouraged by the fact the existing legal framework is vague and open to interpretation.
The issue has cut through the normal political divides with mainstream parties on the right and left supporting a ban.
The pro-headscarf lobby includes Muslim and anti-racism campaigners, as well as the racist Front National party.
It also has an unlikely ally in Nicola Sarkozy, the powerful interior minister who is opposed to an outright ban, arguing that it would foster increased alienation among young North African immigrants in France’s tough and often violent suburban estates.
Although Mr Chirac must officially wait for tomorrow’s report, he has already hinted that he supports a ban.
“We cannot allow people to shelter behind a deviant idea of religious liberty in order to defy the laws of the republic or to threaten fundamental principles of a modern society,” he told an audience in the town of Valenciennes.
Secularism, he added, was “not negotiable”.