Chirac Wants Head Scarves Banned in Schools

French President Jacques Chirac asked parliament on Wednesday for a law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious insignia in public schools, a move that aims at shoring up the nation's secular tradition, despite cries that it will stigmatize France's 5 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 (search) symbolizes 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 autumn. Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large crucifixes would fall under the ban.

"They don't have a place in our public schools," Chirac said.

However, Chirac said the wearing of discreet items like a small pendant with the Star of David "remains possible."

Chirac's proposal also covers the workplace. His labor minister may, if necessary, submit measures to parliament to allow business leaders "to regulate the wearing of religious signs" for reasons of safety or customer relations, Chirac said.

He also called for a law to stop patients in public hospitals from being able to refuse treatment because of the gender of the treating physician or medical personnel. A presidential panel on the issue included reports of Muslim men refusing to let male doctors treat their wives.

As expected, Chirac rejected a commission recommendation to establish the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (search) and the Muslim Eid el-Kabir (search) feast as school holidays.

Adoption of a law seemed likely, as lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum have voiced support for a law on secularism.

France's Muslim community — 8 percent of the country's population — is the largest in Western Europe. France's Jewish community, about 1 percent of the population, is also Western Europe's largest.

The presidential panel said the law was a way for the country to grapple with what it described last week as fast-growing militancy.

"The question is no longer freedom of conscience but public order," said the report by the 20-member commission, issued after six months of interviews with experts, religious leaders, teachers and school pupils.

The topic took on new life after dozens of girls were expelled from school in the past two years for refusing to remove head scarves.

France has grappled with the scarf issue for nearly 15 years. It began in 1989 when two 14-year-old school girls refused to remove their head-coverings.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith, set up this spring to serve as a link between France's Muslim and the government, expressed deep concern over the commission's report. It is headed by Dalil Boubakeur, who is also rector of the Mosque of Paris.

"The proposed terms ... seem most discriminatory toward Islam," the council wrote Monday in a letter to Chirac. It criticized "this new vision of secularism which minimizes guarantees of religious freedom."

Fouad Alaoui, the council's vice president and head of a powerful fundamentalist organization, said a law "would be an injustice."

A handful of labor unions as well as the League for Human Rights jointly voiced disapproval Tuesday of a law, saying they "refuse all stigmatization of a part of the population."

However, the presidential panel said public services other than schools also have been affected by militancy, with hospital corridors used as prayer rooms and women fulfilling national defense duties refusing any rescue operations with men.

Head scarves already are forbidden for people working in the public sector, 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.

The panel linked rising anti-Semitism with the new militancy, and said another victim was women's equality, demeaned by the head scarf.

"If you take the veil from Islamists, nothing is left. They are unmasked," said Mohamed Abdi, who heads an association that fights for sexual equality within the Muslim community.

"The head scarf is the sign of humiliation, the mark of submission of the woman," he said in a telephone interview.

Commission members said the law they proposed would protect rather than exclude. However, there are fears of a backlash.

"A law will displace the problem. It will turn the head scarf problem into a war on Islam," said Mohamed Ennacer Latreche, president of the small but vocal Party of Muslims of France.

A "parallel community" could develop, and "detach itself completely from French society," he said by telephone.

"This isn't a defense of secularism. It's an effort to domesticate Islam," Latreche said.