PARIS – Supporters of a ban on "conspicuous" religious symbols in public schools say the law is needed to preserve France's secular tradition. Opponents see the legislation as discrimination, particularly against the country's large Muslim population.
Both sides get to air their views Tuesday as lawmakers debate the issue.
Some 140 lawmakers in the National Assembly (search), the lower house, signed up to comment on a bill that authorities have said is directed at Muslim headscarves (search) but would also prohibit Jewish skullcaps (search) and large Christian crosses from the schools.
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (search) is to open the debate, a measure of just how important the legislation is to the government. A vote is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 10.
President Jacques Chirac (search) has backed the legislation, and it's expected to pass. Chirac's party holds 364 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, and a bill needs 288 votes for passage.
If adopted, the law would go into effect in September at the start of the school year.
The Islamic head scarf, which covers hair, ears and neck, is considered obligatory by Muslims who follow a strict interpretation of Islam.
A ban is seen as a means of guaranteeing respect for France's separation of church and state in the public domain. It is also a tool to help bring an increasingly militant Muslim population into the mainstream, and help tamp down a rise in Islamic fundamentalism.
With an estimated 5 million Muslims, France has the largest such population in Western Europe and Islam is the second religion in this mainly Roman Catholic country.
A presidential commission that studied the state of secularism for six months concluded that French values were under attack and a ban on head scarves was needed. Chirac endorsed the finding.
The bill forbids signs and dress that "conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students" in all public schools. It would not apply to private schools or to French schools in other countries.
The punishment for refusing to remove the religious symbols would range from a warning to temporary suspension and expulsion.
France has grappled with the issue since 1989, when two girls in Creil, outside Paris, defied school rules banning head coverings.
Since then, scores of students have been expelled.
The legislation is unlikely to end the debate.
Muslims in France and around the world have demonstrated to protest the planned law, and another demonstration is planned for Saturday.
Most of Chirac's centrist allies have said they will vote against the bill or abstain. Others have suggested amendments that would ease the penalty for violators or replace the word "conspicuous" with "visible" to clarify the prohibited symbols.
Several members of the commission that studied secularism in France have expressed concern that the law doesn't address the broader challenge facing society.
The commission agreed a law was needed because "we consider that there is a real threat in France," said Alain Touraine, a noted sociologist and member of the panel.
But, he added in a telephone interview, "I think it would be disastrous to tackle these problems in a pure spirit of prohibition."