PARIS - Ignoring opposition from Muslim leaders within France and beyond, President Jacques Chirac called yesterday for a new law banning the wearing of head scarves for Muslim girls, large crosses for Christians and skullcaps for Jewish boys in public schools.
In a speech broadcast live on television, Chirac recalled centuries of history that he said defined France as a guarantor of individual liberty, and he said the secular identity of the French state was at stake.
If France succumbs to the demands of its religious communities, Chirac said: "It would sacrifice its heritage. It would compromise its future. It would lose its soul."
Calling secularism a "pillar of our constitution," he said he would urge Parliament to pass the law in time for the school year beginning in September.
"In all conscience, I believe that the wearing of dress or symbols that conspicuously show religious affiliation should be banned in schools," Chirac told an Elysee Palace audience of 400 guests, including members of the Cabinet and Parliament, representatives of the major political parties, and leaders of religious, human rights and labor groups.
He added: "The Islamic veil - whatever name we give it - the yarmulke and a cross that is of plainly excessive dimensions: These have no place inside public schools. State schools will remain secular. For that a law is necessary."
Chirac was responding to an official report presented to him last week on the place of religion in French society and how best to preserve the French republican ideal separating church and state.
Among other proposals from the expert commission Chirac appointed in July was a recommendation that schools add religious holidays such as Yom Kippur and Eid al-Kebir, a proposal the president rejected in his speech. More holidays would burden working parents, he said, but he added that students should be able to take off their religious holidays, so important exams should not be given on such days.
But Chirac embraced the commission's recommendation to pass a law banning "conspicuous" religious symbols but allowing "discreet" ones. As the French news media have been pointing out, there is no indication of who will make that determination, or how.
Chirac also called for a law to prevent patients from refusing treatment by a doctor or health care professional of the opposite sex; the development of the teaching of religious principles in schools; a "code of secularism" for civil servants and public-sector workers to use as a guide in the workplace; and the creation of a watchdog agency to monitor violations.
Although Chirac spoke about the general need to prevent religion from encroaching into the public sphere, it is the increasing demands of France's growing Muslim population in general and the wearing of the Islamic veil in particular that infused the issue with new urgency.
Many schools quietly allow girls to keep their heads covered. But there is a conviction, both within the government and among a large swath of society, that the veil is as much a defiant political challenge as it is a religious display.
An opinion poll by the CSA Institute, published yesterday in the newspaper Le Parisien, showed that 69 percent of the French support a law banning the veil in public schools, compared to 55 percent in October. The ban is supported across the political spectrum, with 75 percent of right-wing voters and 66 percent of left-wing voters in favor.
At the same time, leaders of the country's Christian and Jewish communities have joined Muslim leaders in criticizing a ban.
In his speech, Chirac acknowledged the alienation of France's Muslim youth.
"I share the feeling of incomprehension, of disarray and sometimes even of revolt by those young French people - immigrants by origin - whose job applications go into the garbage because of the sound of their names, and who are too often faced with discrimination when they want to find housing or even to get into a place of recreation," he said.
"All the children of France, whatever their background, whatever their origin, whatever their belief, are daughters and sons of the republic," he said.