French PM: Hijab a political challenge

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.

    Raffarin debates his contentious point in the National Assembly

    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.
    Last-minute appeal

    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.

    Muslims in France protest that
    the ban violates religious rights

    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. 
    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.

    'Politicised religion'

    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.

    "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"

    Jean-Pierre Raffarin
    Prime Minister, France

    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.
    "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.

    SOURCE: Reuters


    'We scoured for days without sleeping, just clothes on our backs'

    'We scoured for days without sleeping, just clothes on our backs'

    The Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest storm ever to make landfall. Five years on, we revisit this story.

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    Russian-Saudi relations could be very different today, if Stalin hadn't killed the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

    Unification: Saladin and the Fall of Jerusalem

    Unification: Saladin and the Fall of Jerusalem

    We explore how Salah Ed-Din unified the Muslim states and recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem from the crusaders.