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Press Release: January 19, 2004


“Free people, remember this maxim: we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.” Jean Jacques Rousseau

French Government determined to go ahead with ban of ostensible religious symbols in schools

The French Government is determined to implement the proposed law which will ban the wearing of ‘ostensible’ religious symbols by the start of the next school year. The ban will only apply to state schools and there are no plans ‘for the time being’ to implement a similar law at Universities or the workplace, a French diplomat in London told a seven member delegation of the British Sikh community.

The proposed law will be discussed by the French Cabinet at the end of January and it will be tabled in the French assembly thereafter.

“This ban is necessary because religious symbols lead to intolerance which manifests itself as religious and racial hatred,” the special advisor to the French Ambassador to London, Assia Xixiou, told a seven-member delegation led by UNITED SIKHS, a human development organisation, working for the betterment of 25 million Sikhs globally, which has been campaigning for French Sikhs who had not been consulted by the French government before the proposed law was announced.

“The banning of ostensible religious symbols leaves children open to the sharing of basic overall values in a truly open society which reflects the spirit of republican France,” she added.

She said that she does not know how the Sikh Turban will be treated under the proposed law but she believes that it will be categorised as a religious sign.

She said that the Turban could not be considered a cultural requirement because there is no such thing as a mandatory requirement in culture.

“Religion prescribes. Culture doesn’t,” she said.

The Sikh Turban was not mentioned when President Jacques Chirac announced the ban on Muslim veils, Jewish skull caps and large crucifixes in schools, in his speech in December last year.

“This is not a change in the French vision of society. This is merely a different model of integration for a model that has existed since 1905, when secularism was installed by the separation of state and religion due to the crisis between Catholic establishments and the State,” Miss. Xixiou said when asked about the reason and timing for the legislation.

“The restriction will only apply whilst the child is at school. School is a symbolic place where one becomes a citizen and melts into French society.”

“It is a continuing of a vision of a melting pot which integrates a foreign community,” she said.

Mejindarpal Kaur, director of UNITED SIKHS, said that the French Sikh community had an immediate problem of school provision as they would not be prepared to remove their Turban.

“And there is no alternative to managing their long unshorn hair,” she added.

“The law is the law - if you cannot comply with the law there is always the private sector. The existence of faith schools in France today is the result of this practice,” she added.

Ms Xixiou was not optimistic of a change in the direction of the law. However, she said “ The law will be implemented in the spirit of a dialogue,”

She said that the Stasi commission which proposed the law after a 6 month study had met a representative of the Sikh community in London in December last year.

“The Sikhs find the consequences unimaginable as there is no alternative to the Turban,” said Daljeet Singh, president of the National Gurdwara Council UK, which serves the interest of some 200 Gurdwaras and 750,000 members of the Sikh congregation.

The delegation had a lengthy discussion which was centred on how the proposed law will affect various, faith, religious and ethnic communities in France, including the Sikh community.

The delegation’s memorandum pointed out to the special Advisor, that whilst France had the sovereign right to uphold its secular practices, as a member of the European Community, it will fall foul of European Community Law, if the proposed law is enacted.

Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides for the right to manifest one’s religion.

“This right can be restricted under Article 9(2) if it is necessary in a democratic society,’’ Mejindarpal Kaur said in the delegation’s submitted memorandum.

“However, the restriction must have one of the aims listed in the subsection, e.g. the protection of public safety and health, and it must satisfy the principle of proportionality,’’ she added.

“We accept that France will be given a certain margin to reflect its different cultural and historical practices. However, this margin is not limitless,” the joint memorandum to the Ambassador of the delegation said.

Kaur pointed out that the concept of a ‘democratic society’ has been held by the European Court to mean a society which is not simply governed by a majority but one that is ‘tolerant, pluralistic and broad-minded’.

“Even, if the proposed ban has a legitimate aim, which is debatable because it does not seem to be for any of the aims listed in Article 9(2), it is arguably a disproportionate response to a problem,” she said.

“ If the aim of the proposed law is to secure the secular nature of the French state, it can be secured by preventing the state itself from imposing or endorsing any religion,’’ the memorandum said.

“Instead the proposed ban goes further and forces an individual to violate his or her conscience. It seems to rest on a largely symbolic rationale , as a signal of the kind of society that France is,” the memorandum added.

“ It is precisely such symbolic statements that cannot be imposed by the state under the European Convention,” the memorandum cautioned.

Apart from Article 9, the proposed law will also offend Article 8( respect for private life, which includes dress); Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) and Article 14 (Freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of other Convention Rights, e.g. Freedom of Movement of Labour), Kaur pointed out.

The delegation said that whilst the effect of the ban will be most felt by French communities, British schoolchildren and employees who wear headcoverings such as Sikhs wearing Turbans, Muslims wearing scarves and Jews wearing Kippah will not be able to participate in exchange programmes.

“A Sikh child or a young Jewish boy or Muslim girl who wears a head-covering will not be able to attend a French public school under an exchange programme,” Kaur pointed out.

“This ban will also affect a Teacher or other public servant such as an army personnel who could otherwise have benefited from a work exchange programme,” she added

The delegation delivered to the Ambassador some 9,000 signatures for the Right To Turban petition which was a global petition launched by UNITED SIKHS three weeks ago, “for building a consensus and creating awareness of the issues raised by the proposed law.”

The 7,000 Sikhs living in France were not consulted by the commission of Inquiry which made the recommendations for the proposed law.

“It was therefore, important to shed light on who the Sikhs were and what the Turban meant to them,” Mejindarpal Kaur said.

“France is not a stranger to the Sikh identity as thousands of Turban wearing Sikh soldiers lost their lives fighting for French freedom in the First World War, she added.

UNITED SIKHS also presented to the Ambassador a CD titled ‘Sikhs in French history,’ a photo display of the Sikhs in French history.

Last week UNITED SIKHS announced that over the period of this week, representatives of UNITED SIKHS will meet French Ambassadors around the world to present the petition. Today a Sikh family delivered the Right To Turban petition to the French Diplomat in Lima, Peru.

On 21st January, a delegation of Sikh organisations led by UNITED SIKHS will meet the French Ambassador in Washington; Officials at the Office of International Religious Freedoms in the US State Department; and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Participants from the Sikh Side were:-
NATIONAL COUNCIL OF GURDWARAS (an umbrella body of 235 Gurdwaras): President Dalijt Singh)
SIKH FEDERATION : Led by Dalip Singh with Baldev Singh and Harkewal Singh
AWAZ-E-QUAM: Journalist Jagat Singh
UNITED SIKHS: Directors Harjyot Kaur and Mejindarpal Kaur

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