FRANCE FIGHTS TERRORISM
As Europe struggles with the integration of its rising Muslim population and a new wave of anti-Semitism, a long-awaited official report on church-state relations in France is recommending sweeping changes in the way the country balances its fierce commitment to secularism with the demands of its religious minorities.
The report’s most dramatic recommendation, which was delivered today to President Jacques Chirac, was to urge passage of a law banning “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. Such symbols would include head scarves worn by Muslim girls, skullcaps worn by Jewish boys and large crosses worn by Christians.
The report recommended that public schools provide special meals in their cafeterias for observant Jews and Muslims. It also advocated adding Jewish and Muslim holidays to the calendar, a move that is unprecedented in the rest of Europe. Employers were urged to allow their employees to choose a religious holiday, for example, Yom Kippur for Jews, Eid al-Kebir for Muslims or the Orthodox Christmas for Orthodox Christians.
Currently, there is no uniform regulation on veiling in public schools. A ruling in 1989 by France’s Council of State declared that religious symbols could not be worn in public schools if they “constitute an act of intimidation, provocation, proselytizing or propaganda,” threaten health, security or the freedom of others or “disturb order.”
The ruling was modified three years later to state that the wearing of scarves was valid as long as it was not “aggressive or proselytizing.” But it has been left to the discretion of individual schools to decide.
Some opponents of a ban argue that it will harden the ideological battle lines and spawn the establishment of private Islamic schools that will be hard for the state to monitor. Many French Muslims defend the wearing of the veil as a religious obligation dictated by the Koran.
Supporters of a ban say that it is the only way to stop what they see as increasing demands by France’s large Muslim community for special privileges, such as the separation of men and women in public swimming pools and treatment of female patients exclusively by female doctors.