PARIS (AFP) – French President Jacques Chirac told the country’s top religious leaders that a planned law to ban Islamic headscarves and other insignia from schools would protect religious freedom and not “modify the bounds of secularism”.
“This is simply about France remaining faithful to the balance which has been established over decades and to reaffirm, respectfully but firmly, a principle and practices long present in our country,” Chirac said.
The French leader called for a ban in December following months of fierce debate over whether to allow headscarves in state schools, which are secular.
The draft law, which parliament is likely to pass next month, has drawn protest across the Muslim world and in France, notably from some of the country’s five million Muslims.
A Britain-based Islamic group, the European Council for Fatwa and Research, asked Paris to rethink its plans in a statement made public Tuesday.
Backers of the law, which has strong popular support in France, should act in the interest of “reinforcing national unity and peace”, the group said, according to the French Union of Islamic Organizations which made the statement public.
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The group also urged French Muslims to express their opposition through “peaceful and legal” means.
In Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM) was the first Muslim representative to attend Chirac’s annual New Year’s greeting to religious leaders.
“Today is a great day, an historic day, for Islam in France. It is the first time organized Islam is welcomed into the palaces of the republic,” Boubakeur told journalists.
The CFCM, formed last year, is the first recognized national council for French Muslims.
It opposes Chirac’s secular law, but has indicated it will urge acceptance of the new measure when it comes into force in the next academic year.
Chirac’s comments Tuesday were a “call for calm, wisdom and responsibility,” Boubakeur said. “There is nothing on the French side that is contrary to the serenity of the Muslim community.”
Also present in Paris were French Protestant Federation (FPF) president Pastor Jean-Arnold de Clermont, the Grand Rabbi of France Joseph Sitruk and the Archbishop-Cardinal of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger.
Sitruk said it was “Year I of Islam in France. It is the beginning of a history which I hope will be felicitous and show this friendship between Jews and Arabs.”