Chirac Orders Law Banning Head Scarves

By ELAINE GANLEY, Associated Press writer

PARIS - Despite protests from Muslim leaders, France must outlaw Islamic head coverings, Jewish skullcaps and other obvious religious signs in schools and regulate them in the workplace, President Jacques Chirac announced Wednesday.

French President Jacques Chirac delivers his speech at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Wednesday Dec.17, 2003. Chirac said he will ask parliament to pass a law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious insignia in public schools.
(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Such action, the French president said in a televised national address, is needed to reaffirm France's secular foundations. "It is not negotiable," he asserted.

Islamic head scarves, Jewish yarmulkes or outsized Christian crosses "have no place" in public schools, Chirac said, and called on parliament, where his conservative government has a majority, to pass a law banning them ahead of the school year that starts in September 2004.

While widely expected, Chirac's dramatic proposal capped months of debate about mainly Roman Catholic France's struggle to hold together the multiracial, multicultural but often poorly integrated society it has become after waves of immigration from North Africa and elsewhere.

Chirac's proposals, part of a quickening government effort to thwart the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, also appeared aimed at undercutting support for the extreme right National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Le Pen, who placed second behind Chirac in presidential elections last year, has capitalized on fears of immigration and concerns that France is abandoning its traditions as it seeks to respond to immigrant communities.

Chirac paid homage to the immigrants who helped "forge our country, make it stronger and more prosperous."

But he also said he will not tolerate any religious challenge to France's core values — encapsulated in the phrase carved above the front doors of schools and town halls across the country: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."

Chirac said secularism, France's cherished separation of religion and state, remains a cornerstone of French values, providing neutral ground for different religions to coexist in harmony.

He rejected the Anglo-Saxon model of integration — admired by some French Muslims — where ethnic communities guard their customs and separateness.

"I refuse to let France take that path. It would sacrifice its heritage. It would compromise its future. It would lose its soul," Chirac said.

Less expected than his proposed law governing schools — and possibly more contentious because of its potential scope — was Chirac's proposal for the workplace.

Business leaders should be allowed to "regulate the wearing of religious signs" for safety reasons and for dealing with clients, Chirac said.

He did not specify that head scarves would be banned in the work place, but said he was ready "if necessary" to send measures to parliament to give bosses the ability to set rules on religious symbols.

Chirac said a law also is needed to stop patients from refusing treatment by doctors of the opposite sex. Doctors say there have been cases of Muslim women or their husbands rebuffing male doctors.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith, formed this year at the government's urging to improve ties between Muslim leaders and the state, had expressed deep reservations about banning head scarves, saying it would be viewed as a discriminatory move against France's estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

But the Muslim council's president, Dalil Boubakeur, called for calm in response to Chirac's proposals.

"We have already said that the law of our nation is our law," he said. "It is up to society to fix the norms and values that it wants respected."

France's chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, welcomed the speech, saying Chirac was "extremely clear about the place of religious belief in a modern society."

"He reminded the French, notably the young, of all the elements they need to hear," Sitruk said, adding that he was "overall very satisfied" with Chirac's address.

But the Rev. Stanislas Lalanne, a spokesman for the Catholic Church, said "the fundamental questions of integration will not simply resolve themselves through a law on religious signs." "A law wasn't necessary," said Jamila Chaibi, founder of Rights for Muslim Women of France. She said Muslim women are insulted for wearing head scarves and that Chirac did not do enough to address discrimination.

Chirac said an independent authority will be established next year to combat "all forms of discrimination." He also acknowledged the social, economic and racial inequalities causing tensions among immigrants, many mired in downtrodden, crime-corroded suburbs.

Young French from immigrant families are refused work "because of the sound of their name," Chirac said. He asked: "How can we ask their inhabitants to recognize themselves in the nation and in its values when they live in inhuman urban ghettos, where the lack of law or the law of the strongest pretends to rein?"

Marine Le Pen, vice president of the National Front and Le Pen's daughter, called Chirac's speech "a sort of apology for immigration."

Muslims watched the address on the satellite TV network Al-Jazeera in a tea shop in Paris' Montmartre district. They expressed dismay and some warned of a backlash.

"My wife's family is going to refuse to take off their head scarves," said Ahmed Wahdan, 36, a native of Egypt who has lived in France for 16 years. "Nobody can take their freedom away from them."

Added Ahmed Dolla, another immigrant from Egypt, said: "People always say that France is the country of freedom, but where's the liberty if you ban the wearing of head scarves?"