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Ban on Religious Apparel Advances in France


Sep 28, 2003
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Ban on Religious Apparel Advances in France

Published: February 10, 2004

Associated Press
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin of France addressed the National Assembly today before it voted to ban Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols from public schools.

ARIS, Feb. 10 — France's National Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority today to ban Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols from public schools, a move that underscores the broad support for the French secular ideal but is certain to deepen resentment among France's large Muslim population.

The vote by a 494-36 margin, with 31 abstentions, came hours after Minister of National Education Luc Ferry said that the law will stretch much further than religious symbols and require all students to attend physical education classes and accept what is taught on the Holocaust and human reproduction.

The draft legislation now goes to the Senate, which is also expected to pass it by a wide margin when it votes on March 2.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Ferry, a philosopher and best-selling author, said that bandannas and hairiness would be banned from public schools if they were considered religious signs.

The draft law bans "ostensibly" religious signs that have been defined by President Jacques Chirac and a blue-ribbon governmental advisory commission as Islamic head scarves, Christian crosses that are too large in size and Jewish skullcaps. Sikh turbans are also likely to be included.

But the legislation also includes a lengthy preamble that demands that public schools must be "protected" and guarantee total equality including "coeducation of all teachings, particularly in sports and physical education." Schools, it said, are "the best tool for planting the roots of the republican idea."

Today, Mr. Ferry made clear that religious beliefs could not be used as an excuse to avoid gym or biology classes and that questioning the veracity of the Holocaust would not be tolerated.

"They have no right to contest the contents of a course, for example the program on the Holocaust in history or human reproduction in biology or physical education," Mr. Ferry told Europe 1 radio hours before the National Assembly overwhelmingly approved the proposed law.

Mr. Ferry added that the law "will keep classrooms from being divided up into militant religious communities," noting that there had been a "spectacular rise in racism and anti-Semitism in the past three years."

In recent years, teachers have complained that some Muslim students have been so disruptive in rejecting the veracity of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews that it is impossible to teach the subject.

Teachers have also said that some Muslim girls have boycotted classes on human reproduction because they are too graphic, and have demanded sexually-segregated gym classes; both male and female Muslim students have demanded prayer breaks within the standardized baccalaureate exams at the end of high school and a ban on pork in school cafeterias.

The law does not specifically deal with the issue of students' behavior, but Mr. Ferry said that the preamble would require students to follow the official curriculum that is used throughout France.

In the Europe 1 interview, Mr. Ferry did not single out Muslims for censure, but he did not have to. Most Orthodox Jewish schoolchildren who would object to mixed-sex gym and biology classes, for example, go to private Jewish schools that are already sex-segregated, keep kosher kitchens and teach the Torah. The first — and only — private Muslim high school in all of France opened last fall in Lille.

Despite France's insistence that secularism must govern French schools, there are exceptions. France spends billions of dollars a year to fund private religious schools, mostly to pay teachers' salaries, for example.

Private religious schools that receive state funding are required to strictly follow the national curriculum, but policing by the state is not universal.

For example, at the Merkaz Hatorah School for Orthodox Jews in the Paris suburb of Gagny, which receives state funding and was vandalized in an arson attack last November, evolution is taught as a theory, not as fact.

"We don't teach that man comes from monkeys," said Jacques Benisty, the school's deputy director, in an interview at the time of the attack.

The Catholic catechism is taught and the crucifix is hung in public schools in Alsace-Lorraine, which is exempt from France's 1905 law strictly separating church and state because the area was still in German hands when it was adopted.

Meanwhile, during a brief debate in parliament, before the adoption of the law, Alain Bocquet, a Communist Party deputy who voted against the law, said that it will "stigmatize" citizens of immigrant origin and "set things on fire rather than calm them down."

Former Education Minister Francois Bayrou, head of the small, center-right Union for French Democracy, abstained, as did most of his party, saying it would be difficult to enforce. As minister, Bayrou wrote an advisory ruling for school principals urging them to deal with Muslim headscarves on a case-by- case basis.

Alain Madelin, one of the few members of Mr. Chirac's governing Union for a Popular Movement, to vote no, said in an interview published today in the popular Tablois Le Parisien, "At best it's a useless law; at worse it's a dangerous law."

The legislation has come under fire from Muslim and human rights groups abroad, including the United States-based Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises Congress, the White House and State Department, which said it could violate international human rights standards. Secretary of State Colin Powell, however, said that the Bush administration considers the issue "an internal matter for the French people and the French government to decide."

But in a telephone interview, Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the Paris Mosque and an umbrella organization of Muslim groups in France, praised today's vote as "impressive" and a "buffer" against Muslim fundamentalists intruding into French secular institutions. "Those who wanted to Islamize the institutions like schools or hospitals have been stopped," he said. "Those who wanted to import a non-secular vision will now bump against this secular law. It's a buffer."