France May Ban Religious Symbols Worn at Schools

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Paris ( - A French commission Thursday announced that it was recommending a ban on all "ostentatious" or conspicuous religious symbols worn in schools and President Jacques Chirac will announce next week if he will go along with the suggestions.

The commission was created last summer after several highly publicized cases in French schools where Muslim girls were suspended for refusing to remove their headscarves in class.

Jewish skullcaps and oversized Christian crosses would also be banned under the commission's proposal and only small and discreet religious medallions would be permitted.

Pastor Jean-Arnold De Clermont, president of the Protestant Federation of France, said he was pleased with the report's recommendations, particularly because it does not single out a ban on Islamic headscarves alone.

"We would support legislation that recommends a particular and secular dress code in schools but not one that only bans religious symbols," De Clermont said. "Along with the dress code, the new law should enforce the duty of public schools to serve lunches that do not contain foods offensive to Muslims and Jews."

The report also recommended adding Yom Kippur and the Eid al-Kebir as school holidays. French religious holidays currently consist only of Christian ones.

The commission, headed by a former minister, Bernard Stasi, and including religious leaders as well as teachers, public officials, sociologists and philosophers, heard testimony and recommendations over several months before releasing the report today to President Chirac.

If the government agrees to the recommendations, which claim to reinforce France's secular traditions, and introduces the legislative ban, it would be in response to public concern about a rise in Islamic militancy.

"Secularism essentially means respect for differences," Stasi said at a press conference to discuss his commission's report.

The report acknowledged the diversification of French society as a result of immigration and pointed out the necessity to respect all spiritual beliefs.

Many French people see the increasing number of Muslim women wearing headscarves as a political statement by radical Islamic fundamentalists.

France has the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe - about five million, mostly immigrant workers from North African Arab countries and their French-born children.

Muslim women demanding to be treated only by female doctors in public hospitals has also become a commonplace problem in short-staffed facilities.

De Clermont said he was particularly satisfied that the report took into account the need for all communities to live together in France.

"We approve of the commission's recommendations to emphasize the need for integration of those who live in ghettos," De Clermont said.

In a joint letter earlier this week to Chirac, De Clermont, along with his Catholic and Orthodox counterparts, said he was opposed to a law banning only Islamic headscarves because it would run counter to French and European laws guaranteeing religious freedom.

"Beyond the defense of secularism," said the letter, "beyond religious demands, the real goal of the debate is the success of integration."

The commission acknowledged in its report that the recent increase in Islamic militancy is a result of "integration problems."

The president of the French Muslim Council and France's chief rabbi have also opposed the idea of a ban of religious symbols.

"Now it will be up to the government to stay in the spirit of the commission's recommendations," De Clermont said.

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