Muslim girls in France could be barred from wearing headscarves in schools after an expert commission recommended a ban on “conspicuous” religious signs.
The official commission headed by former minister Bernard Stasi has released its findings on issues relating to religion and the state.
French President Jacques Chirac will announce next week whether he supports the commission’s recommendation.
The ban would also include the Jewish skull-cap and large Christian crosses.
Mr Stasi consulted a wide cross-section of public opinion, including teachers, religious leaders, sociologists and politicians before handing in the report to the president on Thursday.
Although the report was into the wider question of French secularism, debate on the issue has focused on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools.
The commission’s recommendations would outlaw the Jewish kippa, large Christian crosses and the Islamic headscarf, which would be considered overt religious symbols.
“Discreet” medallions and pendants which merely confirm the person’s religious faith would be allowed.
“Muslims must understand that secularism is a chance for Islam,” Mr Stasi told a news conference on Thursday.
“Secularism is the separation of church and state, but it is also the respect of differences.”
The commission’s proposed law was intended so people of all religions could “live together in public places”, he said.
Mr Stasi stressed that the commission’s work did not target France’s Muslim community but was aimed at giving all religions a more equal footing.
The report also recommends that Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement – and Muslim Eid al-Kabir festival be celebrated in state schools.
French public life has a strong secular tradition which has existed since the revolution, but the commission has now recommended that the plan be enshrined in law.
Mr Chirac, who is expected to address the nation next week with his own conclusions, has hinted that he could back a formal ban.
Last week he said France felt “in a certain way under attack as result of the display of ostentatious religious signs, which is totally contrary to its secular tradition”.
He added: “We cannot accept ostentatious signs of religious proselytism, whatever the religion.”
The issue has led to a number of celebrated cases where girls have been suspended or expelled for wearing headscarves to school.
Other schools do not act against pupils who come to class wearing headscarves.
France has the largest Muslim population in the European Union, with around five million people.
The BBC’s Caroline Wyatt in Paris says the Islamic headscarf has become the focal point of an agonised national debate in France.
She said it reflects many of the nation’s unspoken fears about its failure to fully integrate its Muslim immigrants or to give them a purely French cultural identity.
France’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, has joined Christian churches in arguing against a ban.
“What an aberration it is to want to muzzle religion in the name of secularism,” he said in a newspaper interview.
Some Muslims are also opposed to the wearing of headscarves, while others believe the debate has more to do with French concern over its growing Muslim population.
Two German states have begun moves to ban state teachers wearing headscarves in schools.
This follows a recent federal Constitutional Court ruling that a state could not ban a female Muslim teacher from wearing a headscarf because there was no law against it.
But the court said German states could ban headscarves in schools if they passed new laws.
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