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Some in France Criticize Pope Observance


The Associated Press, Paris, Apr. 4, 2005

Secularists criticized the French government Monday for lowering flags to half-staff out of respect for Pope John Paul II, calling it an attack on the country's century-old separation of church and state.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's office ordered that flags at public buildings be lowered for 24 hours following the pope's death Saturday 'in keeping with republican custom.'

But critics said France's republican custom is secular, pointing to the law enacted last year that bans Islamic head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols from schools.

'The French Republic should not descend to such a level,' said Socialist Sen. Michel Charasse, a former finance minister. 'If the Dalai Lama were to die tomorrow, would we lower the flags to half-staff?'

The Communist mayor of Aniane refused to lower flags in the picturesque village in southern France, the mayor's office said.

Cardinal Bernard Panafieu of Marseille disputed the critics' view.

Lowering flags 'in no way damages secularism, which we ourselves strongly support,' he said. 'It's simply a sign that there are people in the world who transcend ideologies and borders because they are men of peace and reconciliation.'

The debate was taken up on national television discussion programs.

'I'm troubled,' Christophe Girard, a Green party member who is deputy mayor for culture at Paris City Hall and describes himself as a Roman Catholic, told France-2 television.

'On the front of our town halls, our schools, it is marked 'liberty, equality, fraternity.' It isn't written 'Catholic France' or 'the Catholic Republic of France,' like the Islamic Republic of Iran.'

Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope dismissed the objections, saying the debate 'shouldn't even be taking place.'

'John Paul II was an exceptional man, a man of peace,' Cope said. Lowering flags was 'a simple act of homage by the republic.'

Some also questioned President Jacques Chirac and other top officials going to a memorial service for the pope Sunday in Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. Chirac's office said late Monday that he and his wife, Bernadette, would attend the pope's funeral Friday in Vatican City.

France is a largely Roman Catholic country with western Europe's largest populations of Muslims and Jews. However, this year it is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1905 law separating church and state that culminated a hard-fought battle with the clergy.