PARIS (Reuters) – French President Jacques Chirac has called for a law banning Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols in state schools, despite protests from Muslims in France and across the world.
In a televised speech after months of debate on the role of religion in French society which highlighted the difficulties of Muslim integration, Chirac urged parliament to pass the law before the next school year starts in September.
The ban will extend to other religious symbols including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, but France’s top Muslim representative said it mainly targeted Islam and would further alienate the country’s five million Muslims.
“In all conscience, I consider that the wearing of dress or symbols which conspicuously show religious affiliation should be banned in schools,” Chirac, standing in front of a French flag, said in a speech to 400 invited guests at his Elysee Palace.
“For that, a law is necessary. I want it to be adopted by parliament and in force before the return to school next year.”
Chirac rejected a government commission’s proposal to mark the holy days of minority faiths with new school holidays, saying French pupils already had many official days off.
He said pupils could wear discreet symbols of faith such as small Islamic pendants, Christian crosses or the star of David.
But going beyond the government commission recommendations, he said it should be an offence to refuse hospital treatment by a doctor of another sex and suggested bosses should be able to set guidelines on wearing religious symbols at work.
He also called for a “secularity code” to be agreed for civil servants and public sector workers, and said a watchdog body would be created to monitor breaches.
POLLS SHOW STRONG SUPPORT FOR BAN
Opinion polls show the ban in schools is backed by a large majority of French citizens although Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders have opposed it.
Chirac hopes his tough stand to maintain the official division between the church and state will help boost his sliding popularity and prevent the far-right National Front from cashing in on racial tensions at regional elections in March.
The controversy over Muslim headscarves is a major issue following several cases of schoolgirls defying schools which have tried to stop them covering their heads in class.
Chirac said such defiance breached the landmark separation of church and state in 1905 and would heighten tensions in France’s multicultural society, whose Muslim and Jewish populations are both the biggest of their kind in west Europe.
“Secularity is one of the republic’s great achievements. It plays a crucial role in social harmony and national cohesion. We must not allow it to be weakened,” Chirac said.
At present, schools must decide how to deal with pupils whose headscarves, skullcaps or crosses contravene secular principles. Decisions to suspend or expel pupils for wearing the Muslim headscarf have sparked angry debates for some time.
Race relations are in the spotlight with young Muslims of North African origin blamed for a perceived rise of anti-Semitic violence in poor suburbs.
Muslims — about eight percent of France’s population — had urged Chirac not to propose a law to enforce any ban.
“A law on religious symbols in the school environment could stigmatise a whole community,” said Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM).
“I think this has nothing to do with being secular. This is probably because of the fear that Islam sometimes is linked to terrorism,” said Syafii Maarif, chief of the 30-million-strong Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organisation.