French legislators pass secularization law

National Assembly votes to ban religious symbols from public schools

February 11, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - France's National Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority yesterday to ban Muslim head scarves and other religious symbols from public schools, a move that underscores the broad public support for the French secular ideal but is certain to deepen resentment among France's large Muslim population.

The 494-36 vote, with 31 abstentions, came hours after the minister of national education, Luc Ferry, said in a radio interview that the law would stretch much further than religious symbols and require all students to attend physical education classes and accept what is taught on the Holocaust and human reproduction.

Three weeks ago, Ferry, a philosopher and best-selling author, said bandannas and excessive hairiness would be banned from public schools if considered religious signs.

The draft law bans "ostensibly" religious signs, which have been defined by President Jacques Chirac and a blue-ribbon government advisory commission as Islamic head scarves, Christian crosses that are too large in size and Jewish skullcaps. Sikh turbans are also likely to be included.

But the legislation also includes a lengthy preamble that demands public schools guarantee total equality, including "coeducation of all teachings, particularly in sports and physical education." Schools, it said, are "the best tool for planting the roots of the republican idea."

Yesterday, Ferry made clear religious beliefs could not be used as an excuse to avoid gym or biology classes, and that questioning the veracity of the Holocaust would not be tolerated. Ferry also said the law "will keep classrooms from being divided up into militant religious communities," noting that there had been a "spectacular rise in racism and anti-Semitism in the past three years."

In recent years, teachers have complained some Muslim students have been so disruptive in rejecting the veracity of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews that it is impossible to teach the subject. Teachers have also said that some Muslim girls have boycotted classes on human reproduction because they are too graphic, and have demanded sexually segregated gym classes. There are also reports that male and female Muslim students have demanded prayer breaks within the standardized baccalaureate exams at the end of high school and a ban on pork in school cafeterias.

In the Europe 1 interview, Ferry did not single out Muslims for censure, but he did not have to. Most Orthodox Jewish schoolchildren who would object to mixed-sex gym and biology classes, for example, go to private Jewish schools that are already sex-segregated, keep kosher kitchens and teach the Torah. The first - and only - private Muslim high school in all of France opened last fall in Lille.

Despite France's insistence that secularism must govern French schools, there are exceptions. France spends billions of dollars a year to finance private religious schools, most of them Catholic, for example.

Private religious schools that receive state financing are required to follow the national curriculum strictly, but policing by the state is not universal.

The Catholic catechism is taught and the crucifix is hung in public schools in Alsace-Lorraine, which is exempt from France's 1905 law strictly separating church and state because the area was still in German hands when it was adopted.

Meanwhile, during a brief debate in parliament, before the adoption of the law, Alain Bocquet, a Communist Party deputy who voted against the law, said that it would "stigmatize" citizens of immigrant origin and "set things on fire rather than calm them down."

The legislation has come under fire from a wide variety of Muslim and human rights groups abroad, including the U.S.-based Commission on International Religious Freedom, which said it could violate international human rights standards. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, however, said that the Bush administration considered the issue "an internal matter for the French people and the French government to decide."

In an interview, Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the Paris Mosque and an umbrella organization of Muslim groups in France, praised yesterday's vote as "impressive" and a "buffer" against Muslim fundamentalists intruding into French secular institutions. The draft legislation goes to the Senate, which is expected to pass it by a wide margin when it votes March 2.

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