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French leader supports ban on religious symbols in schools

French President Jacques Chirac asked parliament yesterday for a law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious insignia in public schools.

The move aims to bolster the nation's secular tradition, despite cries that it will stigmatise France's five million Muslims. Chirac said he also wanted to open the way for businesses to impose the same ban, warning that "fanaticism is gaining ground" in France.

"Secularism is one of the great successes of the Republic", Chirac said in an address to the nation. "It is a crucial element of social peace and national cohesion. We cannot let it weaken."

For many French, the Islamic head scarf symbolises Muslim militancy and fears that fundamentalists are making dangerous inroads in France. But Muslims, for many of whom the scarf is a mark of modesty and a symbol of identity, say a ban is discriminatory and violates their freedoms. They warn it could provoke a backlash, pushing Muslims out of France's mainstream life and fueling militancy.

Chirac said he would push for a law to be enacted in time for the school year that begins next September. Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large crucifixes would fall under the ban.

French Leader Calls for Ban on Religious Symbols in Schools (New York Times/Associated Press 17/12/03)


18 Dec 2003