Ban on religious symbols will apply to schools only: French Ambassador

by Tripti Nath

Soon after his posting to India in 2002 as Ambassador of France, Mr Dominique Girard got busy with the visit of French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin. The little that he has seen of India right from Amritsar, Chandigarh and Varanasi in the North to Chennai and Thiruvanthapuram in the South, he has found its cultural diversity fascinating. In his late fifties, Mr Girard has a rich experience of world cultures. He has served as the second Counsellor in Washington and Ambassador to Australia from 1995 to 2000. Before coming to India, he was the Director of Asia-Oceania in Paris.

Today he is faced with the challenge of assuring the Sikh community that the Bill proposing a ban on wearing ostensible religious symbols in public schools will in no way target them or bring them any harm. In an exclusive interview, he says that he visited the Golden Temple ``out of respect, consideration and recognition of the good relations the French people had with the Sikhs historically.’’


Q: Given the friendly relations between the French and the Sikhs, is your government inclined to review the proposed ban on ostensible religious symbols like the headgear of the Sikhs?

First of all, we are not contemplating an overall ban on anything. What the law that we are about to vote will be aiming at is to ban religious symbols from public schools at the primary and secondary levels. So anywhere else the law is not applied. It is not applied to the university. It is not applied to public places. It is not applied on the streets. The law will be restricted to a very specific area in terms of location and in terms of substance. We don’t want an exhibition of religious symbols in public schools. The vast majority of the children in France go to public schools, which have played all along in our history a very important role in bringing people together even if they come from very different backgrounds - social, religious, ethnic or linguistic. And it is here they become united as French citizens. If we allow the destruction of this space which is neutral and free of religious interference, our model of integration will be at risk.

For instance, the American model is to have people living together as minorities, as communities. In France, it is not working like that. Outside the school, children can have whatever religious life they want, wear whatever religious symbols they like. For instance, if you take our friends, the Sikhs, we never thought one minute of banning the turban from public places. The Sikhs will always be allowed to go around freely with their turban and beard.

So its very important to understand. But it is also very important to understand that France is not America, not Britain, not India. We have our own ways. In France, 25 per cent of the population is of foreign origin. And of course, we have the largest Muslim population in Europe. We also have the largest Jewish population. And it has been working very well as a sort of very efficient machine to get people to become French without abandoning their own tradition. The government is committed by law to support the possibility for all citizens to practise their religion freely and it is a basic tenet of our democracy but the limit is that at school where we make the French citizen, we don’t want any religious interference. The law will provide for that. And why are we doing that now because there is a new phenomenon. There is a temptation among some people to destroy this specific model of French secularism. So we are not refusing globalisation. We are not refusing multi-culturalism. What we are refusing is to have people trying to destroy the system from inside instead of using the liberty that everyone has to develop his religious feeling or cultural tradition.

Q: How and when will the proposed ban be enforced?

In theory, the law will apply only to schoolchildren. The law is being debated. It will be implemented only in September this year. No hard decision such as expulsion will be taken. There will be no extreme measures without a dialogue between the headmaster, the teacher and the student. One year from the beginning of the implementation of the law, it will be reviewed by Parliament. This is an exceptional measure. The ban will cover public schoolchildren from Grade I to XII. The girl who comes with the hijab to school will have to take the veil off when she goes into school. Liberty, equality and fraternity are our motto. It is a very serious business. Liberty - it means that the children must have the liberty to be free of any religious competition at school. Equality is important to ensure equal access of all boys and girls to education. What we have seen is that girls wearing scarves refuse to attend biology classes which talk sometimes of sex, natural sciences or anatomy and sometimes refuse to attend classes with the boys. It means that you will have second class students. We cannot accept this. The problem is that the Chief Headmaster has either to make concessions or to expel the girl. The children have the right to education but if the family puts them in a situation where they cannot, it is a big fault. That is the reason why we have to make the law.

Q: Do you think a review of the proposed ban in favour of the Sikhs will be considered discriminatory to other religious minorities living in France?

There will be no review for one particular religion or category. All our laws are universal. So we cannot exclude the Sikhs or anybody else from the implementation of the law but what we can do is to try to implement the law in the most sensible and appropriate way and we will do that for all categories, not for the Sikhs alone. To implement the law, you have to take into account the concrete situation on the ground. And of course I cannot say that the Sikhs will be immune from the law. What I can assume is that in view of the fact that they are very law abiding citizens and there is no proselytising in the Sikh tradition, we will do our best to accommodate them as much as we can. For the French, the Sikhs are a very special lot. In all the variety of Indian people, the Sikhs are a very special category. The Sikhs in France are worried. But quite obviously this problem in numbers would be a tiny problem because you have a population of 5,000 Sikhs in all. You can easily guess the number of boys going to school. It is a problem which will be handled with consideration, attention and sympathy. We will do our best to make sure that they are not harmed or unjustly targeted in the French crowds. You will see the turbans in French crowds just as now. There will be no change. In our viewpoint, what is at stake is the possibility for us to carry on accepting immigrants, accepting new populations and bringing them into the French fold. We will address the issue in a very appropriate, balanced and cautious way.

Q: There is already a public outcry from the Sikh community in France. Can this move harm France’s secular credentials?

Multi-culturalism and globalism have been with us forever. We attach a lot of value to our laicite which in French means secularism. We have had horrible religion wars in our history. We like politics. We like discussions and debate and political confrontation but we have made sure that we don’t kill each other in the name of things like religion. Our secular credentials are protected by this decision which we have taken.

Q: The Vatican has assured the Sikhs full support in protecting their right to wear the turban. Your comments.

What is clear is that we make our decisions at home. We don’t need the advice of anybody. We want a dialogue with people involved. That is why we have welcomed Sikh friends. We follow the advice of our citizens and not the advice of anybody else.