Contentious Coverings

France in flux over move to ban scarves

The recent move, endorsed by the French President, Mr Jacques Chirac, to ban the wearing of religious symbols in state schools has managed to unite the minorities there. A French commission said the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and large crucifixes were divisive and had "no place in France's state schools, which play a key role in the integration of French society" and are in principle strictly secular. The ban is also likely to affect the school-going children of around 7,000 Sikh families who live in France.

In India, this move had been condemned by the SGPC and other Sikh organisations. Internationally, various groups are working to coordinate efforts to defeat the ban. They point out that like the other affected parties, the Sikhs have "contributed valiantly to the French aspirations of 'liberty, equality and fraternity' during the two World Wars when turban-wearing Sikh soldiers served in France in 13 Cavalry and 8 Infantry regiments." To be fair, the commission has also recommended that Jewish and Muslim as well as Christian holidays should be celebrated, that discreet signs of religious attachment should be allowed and that special meals should be supplied to observant Muslims and Jews.

The issue has cropped up because of a reassessment by the French government of how to preserve the principle of separation of religion from the state, especially in the light of the large number of Muslims now living in France. Critics see the proposals as an appeasement of the Far Right. This may not be true. At the same time, there is no doubt that the proposals are muddled and have not taken into account the sensitivities of the people who are likely to be affected. Common sense tells us that excessive religious zeal cannot be combated by aggressive secularism. There are other ways to sort out the issue and each society needs to find its unique means to separate religion from the state.