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French Lawmakers Overwhelmingly Back Ban on Religious Symbols


Reuters, Paris, Feb. 10, 2004

An overwhelming majority of France's National Assembly voted Tuesday to ban religious emblems in state schools, a measure Paris wants to keep tensions between Muslim and Jewish minorities out of public classrooms. Deputies voted 494 to 36 to ban Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from state schools and threaten pupils who insisted on wearing them with expulsion. The government insists the ban does not single out any religion, but cabinet ministers admit its main targets are the Islamic headscarves and anti-Semitic remarks from Muslim pupils that teachers say have become more frequent in recent years. 'What is at issue here is the clear affirmation that public school is a place for learning and not for militant activity or proselytism,' Assembly Speaker Jean-Louis Debre said. This was the first reading of the bill, which must go to the Senate and then back to the National Assembly for final approval in mid-March, which should now be only a formality.

The key passage of the law, which schools would apply from September, reads: 'In primary and secondary state schools, wearing signs and clothes that conspicuously display the pupil's religious affiliation is forbidden.' The issue goes to the heart of France's self-image as a secular state that keeps faith out of state schools and services to ensure no religion dominates or suffers discrimination. The ban has wide public support but leaders of France's five million Muslims call it discriminatory. It has provoked criticism from Islamic and Christian leaders abroad, including Pope John Paul. Before the vote, Education Minister Luc Ferry said France had witnessed a 'spectacular rise in racism and anti-Semitism in the last three years' and the ban would help to keep classes from dividing up into 'militant religious communities.' The ban would also make clear pupils must follow the full official curriculum and cannot object to or skip classes for religious reasons, he said.

Teachers have complained in recent years of problems with Muslim pupils who interrupt history classes to deny the Nazis slaughtered Jews; boycott classes on human reproduction, saying they are immodest; or refuse to attend physical education. They have also reported that Muslim pupils sometimes repeat anti-Semitic themes they see on Arabic satellite television. Jewish families are increasingly switching their children from state schools to private Jewish schools to avoid harassment. It was not clear whether Paris would also ban Sikh turbans, which the 5,000-strong Sikh community in the Paris area says are not religious but practical coverings for their uncut hair.

In Kuala Lumpur, about 40 supporters of the fundamentalist Islamic P.A.S., the biggest opposition party in mainly Muslim Malaysia, protested against the law outside the French embassy chanting 'Long live Islam' and 'Crush the infidels.' In Washington, 47 members of the United States Congress protested to the French ambassador Monday in a letter saying: 'The proposed law threatens the religious rights of French children by forcing them to choose between school and religious practices that are central to their core values.'