French religious symbol ban draws widespread criticism

Correspondents Report - Sunday, 15 February , 2004

Reporter: Kirsten Aiken

HAMISH ROBERTSON: There's been an intense debate in Europe about a French Bill to ban obvious religious symbols like the Islamic headscarf from state-funded classrooms.

The Bill was passed by a massive majority in the lower house of the French Parliament last week, and assuming it's also passed by the upper house next month, it’ll become illegal to wear the headscarf and other religious symbols in September, when the new legislation comes into effect.

President Chirac's Government claims the fundamental principal of secularism is at stake.

But critics say the Bill threatens freedom of expression, and could prompt an increase in attacks against religious minorities throughout the continent and even beyond Europe's borders.

This report from Kirsten Aiken in London.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: The ban on overt religious symbols in France's state-funded classrooms has caused outrage outside the country's borders. Yet opinion polls suggest 70 per cent of the French population is in favour of it.

The ban is expected to mainly affect Muslim girls who wear the hajib or Islamic headscarf.

But even in the French Muslim population, Europe's second largest at five million, opinion is divided.

Labelling the issue complex, appears an understatement. Although French MPs maintain it is straightforward. Nearly 500 MPs voted for the Bill that's stated objective is secularism. Only 36 registered their opposition.

Jacques Myard from the right-wing RPR Party explains why the measure has received overwhelming domestic political support.

JACQUES MYARD: People try to impose their political religious dogma, that means imposing headscarf and going further, meaning for instance that the girls refuse to go to swimming pool, meaning that the girls for instance refuse to be interrogated by a male teacher.

So we want to reaffirm that at school you don't follow the religious rule. Everyone is on equal footing and religion belong to the private life of everyone, not the public one.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: Student Abeer Pharaon disagrees with Jacques Myard. Ms Pharaon heads the British Muslim Women’s Society and became very animated when I asked about the importance of her brilliant white headscarf.

ABEER PHARAON: It has a function. It is embedded in myself as a Muslim woman. So it is not a threat to anyone. It's not a threat to secularism.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: Abeer Pharaon fears that many students just like her, but living in France, will face discrimination if the legislation is approved by the Senate, and again finally, by the National Assembly.

ABEER PHARAON: I'm proud and raise my head high, because of my scarf, because I feel this is part of my religion.

And when somebody asks me to take it out, it means that they are pushing me to home. Not to study, not to educate, not to go to my work, and not to do anything.

It means that they are pushing me to feel angry, to feel angry with the society and to be, you know, just sitting at home doing nothing.

Is that secularism? Is that freedom? I don't think so.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: What do you make of the French Government's claim that symbols like the hajib risk creating a religious battleground in state schools?

ABEER PHARAON: Well I want to question that. I want to question them. They should tell us how can a piece of cloth threaten secularism.

I mean, Muslims have been living in Europe and everywhere for a long time and nothing happened. Why is it now? Is it because of elections? I'm questioning that.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: Dabinderjit Singh from the Sikh Secretariat in London believes Abeer Pharaon has answered her own question.

DABINDERJIT SINGH: There is a political background to this, that in France at the moment, the second biggest political party is the right-wing party led by Le Pen and I think this has sent shockwaves through France that, you know, the Socialist Party is no longer seen as the Opposition.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: The ban will cover obvious religious symbols and will therefore also target the Sikh turban, the Jewish skull cap and the Christian cross, besides the Islamic headscarf.

Dabinderjit Singh says President Chirac's ruling centre-right UNP Party hasn't thought it through.

He believes greater segregation between religious faiths will be the eventual damaging result.

DABINDERJIT SINGH: It could end up in the courts because whenever you do not consult community, whenever you infringe minority rights, invariably the process is looked at, and I think what we're saying is that Sikhs are protected by European and international law.

There have been test cases in the past and we believe through our experience in the UK that this is an issue where French authorities, because they haven't completely thought this through, will find that they will need to do something.

KIRSTEN AIKEN: It's understood members of the European Parliament have asked the European Commission to look at the ban to consider whether it contravenes a treaty guaranteeing the freedom of labour movement and capital inside the EU.

In the meantime, France is facing a huge international backlash to scrap it.

Politicians in the UK, Iran, Egypt and India have made their opposition known, with some aligning President Chirac alongside the German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, because of it.

Others say it will prompt an increase in attacks against religious minorities throughout Europe.

But it's difficult to see how the French Government will do an about-turn when the ban could win at votes at home.

And even its near neighbours, including Germany and Belgium are considering following suit.

This is Kirsten Aiken in London, for Correspondents Report.