PARIS – They arrived as they do every December: gaily wrapped gifts destined for children at a kindergarten in rural northern France (search).
But this year, teachers unwrapped a few, took a look and sent all 1,300 packages back to City Hall. The presents were innocent, but strictly speaking, illegal: seasonal chocolates shaped like Christian crosses and St. Nicholas (search).
As Christmas approaches, France is awakening to the realization that a new law banning conspicuous religious symbols at schools — a measure used mainly to keep Muslim girls from wearing traditional Islamic head scarves to class — can cut both ways.
"It's an unhealthy political affair. Absolutely regrettable," said Andre Delattre, mayor of the northern town of Coudekerque-Branche, which has shipped the traditional chocolates to local schools for 11 years.
"What's the point? It's the children who are being penalized for this difference of opinion," he said. "They've been deprived of a festive moment."
The law, which took effect in September, bans overt symbols such as Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses at public schools.
More than a dozen teenage Muslim girls have been expelled from high schools for refusing to remove their scarves, along with three Sikh boys kicked out of a Paris-area school for wearing turbans.
But last week's dispute over the chocolates was the first time the law — France's response to what many perceive as a rise in Muslim fundamentalism — has been used to challenge Christian imagery.
A spokeswoman for the Education Ministry said Monday she was not aware of any other incidents involving Christian symbols in violation of the ban.
To be sure, even at Christmas time, few public school classrooms are decorated with crosses or other religious imagery in France, a traditionally Roman Catholic (search) yet proudly secular country.
"In 1968, the slogan was, `It's forbidden to forbid.' In 2004, it's, `Forbidding is a must,"' Bruno Frappat, editor of the Catholic daily La Croix, wrote in a weekend commentary. "And one of the phobias most in vogue is Catho-phobia."
The situation in France differs sharply from that in neighboring Italy, where a 1924 law says schools must display the crucifix.
Pope John Paul II (search) clearly had the French restrictions in mind when he waded into the fray in October to exhort Christians to more boldly display signs of their faith. The practice neither infringes on separation of church and state nor breeds intolerance, he said.
As officials police schools to keep overt religious symbols from undermining the nation's cherished secularism, political leaders are locked in a fierce debate over whether to modify the 1905 law that enshrined the separation of church and state in France.
Nicolas Sarkozy, a former finance minister who heads President Jacques Chirac's conservative Union for a Popular Movement party and is considering a run for the presidency in 2007, is leading a drive to amend the law and allow state subsidies for religious groups.
Sarkozy wants to give France's 5 million Muslims, who form Western Europe's largest Islamic community, the means to build mosques. He believes that bringing Islam out into the open would help Muslims integrate into French society and discourage extremism from flourishing among believers now meeting underground.
But Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin contend there's no compelling reason to tamper with a law that has served as a cornerstone of modern French secularism for a century.
France is still coming to grips with its growing Muslim population. A wariness of Islam persists, reflected in a survey published Sunday by the newspaper Le Figaro that found two in three French oppose mostly Muslim Turkey's quest to join the European Union.
Delattre, the Socialist mayor whose $5,300 gift of sweets was spurned, is annoyed that the ban on religious symbols at schoolhouses could intrude on a long-standing Christmas tradition.
"We ended up having to replace the chocolate figurines with regular chocolate bars," he said. "Why? St. Nicholas is always portrayed with his cross."