PARIS – A presidential panel recommended Thursday that France ban Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large crucifixes at public schools. Although directed at all three religions, the measure was clearly aimed at countering Islamic fundamentalism (search).
The conclusions of the panel -- after six months of study and 120 hearings -- is at the heart of a wrenching debate in France on how to integrate its Muslim community, the largest in Western Europe.
There are fears that head scarves signal inroads by extremists among the country's 5 million Muslims, who make up 7 percent of the population of this predominantly Catholic country. But Christian and Jewish religious leaders recently opposed a law banning head scarves from schools and favored better integration of the Muslim community into the mainstream.
Bernard Stasi, who headed the commission, said its members were shocked to discover a "situation more serious than we thought." He spoke of "forces that are trying to destabilize the country."
The report said hospitals and prisons have seen a growing tendency to impose religious practices. It said some hospital corridors are used as prayer rooms and some men refuse to allow their wives to be treated by male doctors.
Moise Cohen, president of the Consistoire of Paris (search), which directs religious Jewish life, said Thursday he opposes a head scarf law because it could be viewed by Muslims as discriminatory and "exacerbate emotions."
Two leading Muslim representatives appeared to reject the commission's report, though in mild terms.
The French Council for the Muslim Faith (search), an umbrella group, said it "approves" the positions of the Jewish and Christian religious leaders and "encourages everything that can strengthen the spirit of concord and tolerance."
The head of the Great Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, withheld approval of the panel's conclusions, saying only that he shares President Jacques Chirac's (search) concerns about "guaranteeing freedom in the framework of secularism."
There was no immediate reaction from the Catholic Church. But the Protestant Federation of France (search) said it was "agreeably surprised" with the scope of the report, saying it helps clarify "the principles of secularism in 21st century France."
Chirac, who appointed the panel, will announce next week whether he supports banning conspicuous religious symbols from schools.
But he has already made clear his opposition to head scarves in the classroom. On a visit last week to Tunisia, Chirac told high school students that wearing a veil in France was seen as "a sort of aggression."
Head scarves are already forbidden for public servants, but that rule -- which is not a law -- is occasionally broken. A Muslim employee of the city of Paris was recently suspended for refusing to take off her scarf or shake men's hands.
Several girls have been expelled from public schools this year for wearing Islamic head scarves. There are on average about 150 complaints involving head scarves annually, according to the French Education Ministry.
The 20-member panel agreed unanimously that France should impose a law banning "obvious" religious and political symbols from public schools, such as head scarves and yarmulkes. Small pendants like the Star of David would be permitted.
Stasi stressed that the commission's work did not target France's Muslim community but would give all religions more equality and free young girls who, in some cases, are forced to wear head scarves.
"Muslims must understand that secularism is a chance for Islam," Stasi said. "Secularism is the separation of church and state, but it is also the respect of differences."
France's largest high school teachers union said the report didn't go far enough in calling for secularism to prevail in public schools.
"Veils are just one problem," said Daniel Robin, national secretary of the SNES union. He said several of France's regional administrations still require religion to be taught in public schools and have clergy on their payrolls.
The commission also recommended what would be a first for France -- adding Jewish and Muslim holidays to the school calendar.
There is currently no law banning head scarves in schools or elsewhere. In 1999 France's highest administrative body ruled that scarves should be banned only when they are of an "ostentatious character," but left it to schools to make the call case by case. The same applies to skullcaps and crucifixes.
The panel concluded that the rule's language left room for interpretation and that a law banning the "obvious" display of religious symbols would be easier to enforce.
Proponents of a law say that students who wear Muslim head scarves to school, just like civil servants who cover their heads on the job, are challenging the nation's secular underpinnings.