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Friday, December 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

French panel backs ban on Muslim head scarves in schools

By Elaine Ganley
The Associated Press

Alma Levy, 16, left, points to her 18-year-old sister Lila's head scarf. They were expelled from their high school, outside Paris, for wearing head scarves.
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PARIS — A presidential commission yesterday backed a ban on Islamic head scarves in public schools — stepping into the wrenching debate over how to preserve the country's secular identity while integrating France's Muslim population, the largest in Western Europe.

If it becomes law, the measure would also bar other conspicuous religious symbols, including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. The panel recommended a ban from classrooms of all "obvious" political and religious symbols including Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcap and large Christian crucifixes. More discreet symbols such as small crosses would be acceptable, it said.

French President Jacques Chirac, who in the past has made clear his opposition to head scarves in the classroom, is expected Wednesday to announce in an address to the nation whether he supports enacting the panel's recommendations into law.

For nearly 15 years, France has debated the issue, but it has taken on new life during the past two years with the expulsion of dozens of girls from school for refusing to remove their scarves.

Bernard Stasi, who headed the panel, said the proposed law was aimed at keeping France's strict secular underpinnings intact and at countering "forces that are trying to destabilize the country," a reference to Islamic fundamentalists.

France covets its secularism — won nearly a century ago after a long battle with the Roman Catholic Church — and fears that this constitutionally guaranteed principle is being undermined by some communities, particularly Muslims.

Muslims represent some 7 percent of France's 60 million people while the country's Jewish community is about 1 percent of the population — also Western Europe's largest.

Until now, the only policy on head scarves in schools comes from The Council of State, France's highest administrative body, which has said they can be banned if they are of an "ostentatious character," a judgment left to each school.

Head scarves are already forbidden for people working in the public sector, but that rule, which is not a law, is occasionally broken.

The Muslim head scarf is but one aspect of the conflict between religion and the secular culture, the panel found. Without naming a particular religion, the report cited examples of male students refusing to take oral exams from female teachers or men refusing to allow their wives to be treated by male doctors.

Such behavior is often the work of "organized groups testing the resistance of the Republic," the report said.

The report did offer some concessions to religion, proposing the addition of one Jewish and one Muslim holiday to the school calendar and creating a national institute to study Islam.

The headscarf debate has also emerged elsewhere in Europe along with Muslim immigration.

Germany's 16 states are split over whether to introduce bans on head scarves. In 1999, thousands of Muslims in Turin, Italy, marched to demand that women be allowed to wear veils in photos for official identity documents.

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