PARIS (AP) — French Cabinet ministers Wednesday adopted a bill banning conspicuous religious symbols in public schools — the first step in outlawing Islamic head scarves in the classroom.
The bill, containing three articles, goes to the parliament for debate Tuesday.
It stipulates that “in schools, junior high schools and high schools, signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students are forbidden.”
It does not apply to students in private schools or to French schools in other countries.
The law would forbid Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses, but it is clearly aimed at the Muslim head coverings.
Under the legislation, sanctions for refusing to remove conspicuous religious signs would range from a warning to a temporary suspension from school to an expulsion.
The law has been criticized by some, including Muslims in other countries, as discriminatory.
Conservative President Jacques Chirac, who pushed lawmakers to adopt the law in a nationally televised speech in December, asked that the legislation be succinct, passed quickly and in force by the new school year in September.
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, estimated at about 5 million, and there is growing concern that Muslims are not fully integrating into French society. That concern is magnified by fears of a rise in Muslim fundamentalism.
The legislation, Chirac said Wednesday, would protect schools from what the French call “communautarisme” — minorities and ethnic groups living apart from mainstream society.
“To do nothing would be irresponsible. It would be a fault,” Chirac told the closed-door Cabinet meeting, according to government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope.
Not acting would mean “leaving teachers and school principals alone in the face of growing difficulties,” Chirac said.
The legislation “lays down a clear principle” and “enables us to address concrete problems confronting our schools while always favoring dialogue,” the spokesman quoted Chirac as saying.
The legislation culminates 15 years of debate over the wearing of Islamic head scarves in classes, perceived as an affront to the constitutional principle of secularism underpinning French society.
Most, but not all, public schools have observed guidelines forbidding head coverings. However, schools have been left to decide on taking action against those who flout the rules, and decisions have been made case by case.
Scores of young girls have been expelled over the years for refusing to respect school rules.
Cases of civil servants and private sector employees insisting on wearing head scarves also have arisen, but the planned law is limited to public schools.
Chirac specified that the legislation “obviously does not forbid signs of religious affiliation in daily life.”
Chirac’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, has a large parliamentary majority that is expected to approve the measure quickly. However, some party members have recently voiced dissent.
The opposition Socialists favor a law, too. However, Socialist official Francois Rebsamen said Wednesday that the party plans to seek amendments to improve the bill’s “comprehension and application.”