Muslim headscarves in state schools have become a political challenge to France's fundamental values of openness and tolerance and so must be banned from state classrooms, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has said.
Introducing a controversial bill to ban religious symbols from public schools, Raffarin told the National Assembly that groups challenging the freedom and equality of French society must not agitate in classrooms meant to integrate all citizens.
Raffarin opened four days of debate on the law worded to bar Muslim headscarves (hijabs), Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.
The looming ban, whose rigour cannot be understood without recalling the wars of religion France fought before separating church and state, has angered Muslims in France and baffled observers abroad. Religious leaders in the country have criticised it.
"Certain religious signs, among them the Islamic veil, are multiplying in our schools. They are taking on a political meaning," Raffarin said. "Some want to know how far they can go - we are giving them a response today."
Raffarin rejected arguments from observant Muslims and Jews that head coverings were required by their religions and the ban would violate their freedom of belief. "Religion cannot be a political project," he declared.
The National Assembly is expected to pass the bill easily when it votes on 10 February.
The influential Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) made a last-minute appeal to allow Muslim schoolgirls to wear a discrete bandanna or hairband if they could not keep the long scarves that cover their necks and shoulders.
If this is not allowed, UOIF President Lhaj Thami Breze told Reuters, Muslims would start to launch their own schools where girls could study with covered heads. "In five years, we'll see private schools sprouting up like mushrooms," he said.
Muslims in France protest that
the ban violates religious rights
After rushing the bill to parliament before regional elections next month, Raffarin echoed doubts even supporters have expressed about how a headscarf ban can solve the larger question of integrating France's five million Muslims.
He said the government would soon submit a law on ensuring secularism in public hospitals, where some Muslims refuse treatment by doctors of the opposite sex. It would also step up its efforts to fight against job and sex discrimination.
Jacques Barrot, parliamentary leader for President Jacques Chirac's UMP party, reminded legislators that the growing role of politicised religion in school also meant some pupils increasingly rejected lessons about the Holocaust.
Among the growing concerns expressed before the vote was the complaint of sociologist Alain Touraine, who said politicians had twisted the work of the commission that first proposed the ban on religious symbols last November.
"Certain religious signs, among them the Islamic veil, are multiplying in our schools. They are taking on a political meaning... some want to know how far they can go - we are giving them a response today"
Prime Minister, France
"We had to say 'stop' - but we did not want to reduce France's position just to saying 'stop'," said Touraine, noting the commission he worked on had made over 20 proposals to foster integration that politicians had ignored in drafting the law.
Amendment to bill
The government accepted a short amendment to the bill to require school principals to hold a dialogue with a recalcitrant pupil before any sanction or expulsion can take place.
The main passage says: "In primary and secondary state schools, wearing signs and clothes that conspicuously display the pupil's religious affiliation is forbidden."
The draft law does not list which symbols are taboo, a loophole France's 5000 Sikhs hope will allow their children to continue wearing turbans and headscarves to class.
The government has said the law would let pupils wear a small cross, Star of David or Hand of Fatima if it easily can be hidden in a sweater or blouse.