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Debate over religious symbols divides France

The French parliament is expected Tuesday to approve a controversial law that would ban all conspicuous religious dress and symbols in public secondary schools. NBC's Jim Maceda reports from Paris.
A young Muslim woman with a French flag on her headscarf protests against the passage of a new law banning the display of religious signs at schools in Lille last month.  Pascal Rossignol / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

Rahma Slimane is a 19-year-old senior, and straight-A student, at the Vocational High School in Savigny-le-Temple, a stark, working-class suburb of Paris. A devout Muslim, she chose two years ago to wear a veil, even in school, where she majors in hotel and restaurant commerce. Wearing the veil, or hijab, she said, is a free expression of her faith. But, in France it may soon be a criminal act.

France's National Assembly is expected Tuesday to approve a controversial bill, drafted by President Jacques Chirac’s conservative cabinet, that would ban all conspicuous religious dress, and symbols, in public secondary schools.

And while the prohibition would affect large Christian crosses as well as Jewish skullcaps, the target has been the nation's growing Muslim population.

The bill's co-author, Professor Gilles Kepel, told NBC News that the choice was critical for the French government: Either French state schools crack down on religious dress and symbols, or those schools will no longer function as the "learning fields’’ of a free, French and secular society.

If the government does nothing, "then you will have schools like you have in the United States," Kepel said, "where the kids of the rich white middle class go to private schools and the public school system is left for the poor and the blacks. What the French are keen to defend is a public school system where there is a social mould, and some sort of integration.’’

Kepel said French schools have become "hunting fields" — recruiting centers for radical Islamic students who want to impose extremist views on others.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the current "intifada," or uprising by Palestinians in the Middle East, French schools, Kepel said, have been taken hostage by a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, pressuring ordinary students to join in the "jihad."

"We have seen tragic examples where a young Muslim student was stoned, or even burned to death, because she wasn’t wearing a veil, or fasting during the holy month of Ramadan," Kepel said. "If this continues, we are going to have a society that is utterly divided.’’

What does it mean to be French?
For Slimane, the new law is a reason to be angry. She said she's confused by the apparent discrimination against France's 6 million Muslims, the largest Muslim community in Europe.

"Why should we be punished?’’ she asked. "It’s just not fair. Are we any less intelligent than the non-Muslims in this school? I have many Muslim girlfriends, all good students, who wear the veil and who will have to quit school if this ban becomes law.’’

The latest polls suggest the majority in France back a ban that will become law by the next school year. Almost 70 percent of those polled agree with the prohibition, citing the need to protect the neutral, non-religious status of French state schools.

But a majority of French Muslims are against it, and that opposition is growing.

Since Chirac embraced the proposals for the law in December, tens of thousands of Muslims, from across Europe and the Middle East have protested against the ban, calling it a direct attack on the Muslim way of life. 

Even moderate Muslim organizations, like the French League of Muslim Women, which respects  France’s 100-year-old "loi de laicite," or secular law, and supports integration of Muslims within French society, are outraged by the ban.

"It’s just an excuse that cloaks endemic racism against Muslims here,’’ said Noura Jaballah, president of the league. "Those who hate Muslims — who see all Muslims as potential terrorists — will now see this ban as a justification to walk all over us. I agree integration is failing, but it’s not because of the veil. It’s because of  the bigotry of the common Frenchman, and now he will feel more inclined to spit at us.’’

The proposed law has polarized the nation along religious lines, increasing the tension and anxiety which were already running high.

But the French government seems determined to enact the law, despite losing much of the political capital it had gained in opposing the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and despite increasing international criticism, including from Pope John Paul II, who has called the ban an infringement on religious freedom.

And it hasn’t helped that the wording of the proposed law remains vague. How does one define "conspicuous religious symbols?" The question would ultimately be left open to the interpretation of school administrators.

Different ethnicities feel threatened
Even French officials are sending out mixed signals: The Education Minister, Luc Ferry, added fuel to the controversy by suggesting last month that even beards and bandanas could be included in the ban, if they were worn for religious purposes.

This scared many of France’s 10,000 ethnic Sikhs, whose religion forbids them to shave or remove their turbans.

A few days later, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin contradicted his cabinet colleague, declaring that beards and bandanas would not come under the ban. But Sikhs leader Gudwara Singh, who came to France 25 years ago and now runs a temple in Bobigny, outside Paris, worries he will be forced to remove his turban, an absolute taboo.

"I love this country," said Gudwara.  ‘’My children were born here. They are French. When they make a law like this, it is very bad for us, and very bad for France, because it divides our communities and our children.’’

Supporters of the bill believe that the real threat to French identity — and nationhood -- will come if nothing is done to eliminate the religious and political pressures at state schools.

"We will have a sort of apartheid," says Kepel. "Everyone will be proud to defend his own identity — I am a Muslim, I am a Christian, I am a Jew first. And then a Frenchman, second. This is not acceptable.’’

But a growing number of critics — at home and abroad — say that the ban on religious symbols, and especially on the hijab, will, in the end, be unenforceable, and will only play into the hands of extremists on both sides.

And that could divide a proud, secular France even more.