France has been grappling with how to reconcile religious beliefs with secular values when it comes to pork in school lunches. One lawmaker's solution: vegetarian meals.

After banning Muslim headscarves in classrooms in 2004, France is now tackling what to put on the plates of observant Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren, who by tradition don't eat pork. The proposal by lawmaker Yves Jego to serve vegetarian meals as the mandatory option for pork has aroused unusual interest in a country where meat is regarded as part of the gastronomic tradition.

The center-right politician is winning a wave of support with his plan to introduce a bill next month that would impose vegetarian meals in addition to classic menus — helping young Muslims and Jews as well as vegetarians.

"Can we force a Catholic child to eat meat on Good Friday because nothing else is proposed, or a Jew or a Muslim to eat pork?" Jego asked in an online petition. Within days it collected more than 72,000 signatures and has been shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter.

Jego launched the petition last week in reaction to an order by the conservative mayor of Chalon-sur-Saone, east of France, to remove pork substitutes from school menus. A court decision this month gave the green light to Mayor Gilles Platret's order — despite concerns the move could sow discord. France is home to both western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at 5 million, and largest Jewish population.

Schools often offer pork substitutes, but nothing mandatory nationwide. In 2008, Lyon became the first major city to impose an alternative meatless menu in schools. In recent months, several mayors of medium-sized towns have announced their intention to do the same.

Jego describes the vegetarian alternative as a "quite simple and fully secular solution" to end a "religious dispute" and "allow those who don't want meat or fish, for whatever reason, to eat a balanced diet." The proposal has received support from some left- and right-wing politicians as well as environmentalist and vegetarian organizations.

However, Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll — also spokesman for the Socialist government — has criticized the idea as harmful to French livestock farmers. The government has faced major farmer protests in recent weeks over low pork prices.

"Supporting French livestock with vegetarian menus: that's Yves Jego's program! Let's be consistent," Le Foll said in a tweet.

French authorities have been increasingly at pains to strike a balance between its strict separation of religion and state, laid out in a 1905 law guaranteeing secularism, and its need to come to terms with increasingly vocal minorities in a multicultural society. In addition, the French consider their public schools as a key vehicle for transmitting the nation's values.

A 2011 government order specifies that school menus must be composed of meat, fish or eggs to "ensure sufficient iron and mineral nutrients intakes" — but makes no mention of a meatless option.