Paris (CNSNews.com) - French President Jacques Chirac announced on Wednesday that he will ask parliament to adopt a law banning Islamic headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols in public schools.
Religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim community spoke out in recent days against such legislation, which might limit religious freedom guaranteed under French law.
But, after months of debate, Chirac has decided to go along with public opinion, which favors a clear law to ban Islamic headscarves because they are feared by many as a political statement by Muslim militants.
Chirac said the new law would strengthen France's long-cherished national tradition of secularism and separation of church and state.
Islamic headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large crucifixes would all be banned from schools. Small medallions and other small religious symbols would be permitted, however.
Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) said he was pleased by Chirac's announcement.
"Schools and public institutions should not suffer from the interference of any religious groups and President Chirac's speech has reaffirmed France's secularism. This law will be a safeguard against radical Muslim groups who would like to impose their will," Cukierman said.
France has the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe - about five million. Many of them are second and third generation French citizens, with origins in North African Arab countries.
France also has the largest Jewish population in Western Europe, totaling about 500,000.
Dalil Boubakeur, the president of the French Council for Muslims, said in a statement that French Muslims would abide by France's laws. Boubakeur asked Muslims to "see that the President's words were for the general interest and did not carry a spirit of discrimination or stigmatization of our community."
Opponents of a ban on Islamic headscarves have warned that such a law would only alienate Muslims, who have not always succeeded in integrating fully into French society.
Mouloud Aounit, secretary general of the Movement Against Racism (MRAP), said that President Chirac's speech was a "powerful reaffirmation of secularism."
But Aounit also warned that "passing a law on an issue which has been marginal will only fuel the creation of more militant Islamic schools and will force young Muslim women away from national French schools, where they could benefit from being exposed to democratic principles of equality."
In his speech, Chirac said that demands by some Muslim women for separate women's hours at public swimming pools and for care by only women doctors at public hospitals were against French principles of equality. The president said a new law was needed to forbid such separate treatment.
Cukierman said he was particularly pleased at this aspect of the law.
"We believe the Islamic headscarf is a symbol of oppression for women," Cukierman said. "We are glad that the law will reaffirm that men and women must be treated equally."
Chirac rejected another recommendation made by an independent commission looking into the issue and said that France should make a gesture toward other religions by adopting two new school holidays, the Muslim feast of the Eid al-Kebir and the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.
French children get days off from school only for national holidays and Christian ones such as All Saint's Day, Easter Monday and the Ascension.
Chirac said in his speech that adding the non-Christian holidays would create childcare problems for working parents.
Religious leaders as well as parents associations had expressed support for adding the two holidays to the school calendar because it would work towards integrating France's main secondary religions into the country's largely Christian heritage.
Cukierman said that although he was slightly disappointed about the president's decision, he was confident that Chirac's promise would be respected and that school authorities would not penalize children absent from school on their religious holidays.
"After all," said Cukierman, "why should we ask the whole nation to stay home on the holy day of 1 percent of the people? The current holidays are part of France's long tradition."
Chirac made his announcement in the face of intense national debate. In a poll published yesterday by Le Parisien, a French daily newspaper, 69 percent of those questioned said they wanted a law to ban Islamic headscarves at public schools.
At the same time, 58 percent said they were opposed to adding a Muslim and a Jewish holiday to the school calendar.
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France May Ban Religious Symbols Worn at Schools (Dec. 11, 2003)
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