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The French Republic is built on a strict separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs rather than stigmatise any religion. Secularism is one of the few issues that unites left, right and the far-right of Marine Le Pen.


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At the heart is the rule that any state worker in the public service must be impartial and neutral, and so cannot show their religious belief with an outward symbol such as a headscarf. Public-sector workers — from teachers to post office or train station staff — are prohibited from wearing the hijab, a visible cross, turban or Jewish kippa.

This legislation, dating back 60 years, is set in stone. That the debate is centred on young children and whether they should not be "exposed" to headscarves has made it seem all the more divisive. Anissa Fathi, 34, stirs her coffee in a halal burger bar in Montreuil while her eldest son plays. She has three children.

Debate over religious symbols divides France

They understand. A lot of children who have been exposed to this treatment of their mothers have had psychological difficulties. My son would have fits of rage, he was self-harming and hitting his head against the wall at home because I couldn't go. Whenever the date of a school trip approached, he would be extremely anxious and in tears. Fathi, who is French, remembers her own mother going on school trips in a headscarf without a problem. She left her job in a private company after being told that her hijab was a safety risk while she operated a small sewing machine attaching labels to hospital sheets.

She feels Muslims are unfairly targeted. There is no law that specifically bars mothers in headscarves from school trips — legal experts warn it would contravene European human rights legislation. Instead, after a Montreuil court upheld a school's right to bar a mother in a hijab from an outing in , Sarkozy's education minister issued a memo in recommending schools uphold the "neutrality of public service" on school trips, meaning mothers in hijabs should take off their veils if they want to help on a picnic or gallery visit.

The memo leaves schools free to decide for themselves, so some bar mothers in headscarves and others don't. Despite petitions from Muslim mothers, the memo has not been annulled by the Socialists. The current education department said it was not about excluding parents from trips but reminding them that neutrality applies when on school activities.

Mothers said barring them from outings while at the same time allowing them to run school summer fete stands in their headscarves was absurd. Located in one of France's poorest towns, the creche was unique — open 24 hours, every day, to help single mothers with awkward working schedules, including nurses, police officers and waitresses.

Increasing Tensions

The creche sacked Afif for insubordination and misconduct. The creche had an internal rule book that banned religious symbols worn by any staff. The effect was a political bombshell. The Socialist interior minister, Manuel Valls , told parliament he "regretted" the court decision, which "undermined" secularism in France. The feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter and other leftwing intellectuals demanded tighter laws enforcing secularism to keep religious symbols such as headscarves out of private creches to protect children and ensure "neutrality".

One lawyer for the creche spoke of the "danger" of the hijab to impressionable children.

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Baby Loup became a byword for a new debate about tighter laws on the veil. Hollande swiftly announced on TV that a new law on religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves was a "necessity".

He said that when there is "contact with children" in a private creche there should be a similar approach to the state sector. The president quickly reactivated a consulting body, the Observatory on Secularism , which is expected to report back in the coming months on how to frame a new law restricting headscarves and religious symbols in private creches. Aware of the explosive potential of this public debate, Hollande called for "calm and constructive dialogue". The Socialist MP Christophe Caresche cautioned against the danger of the "recurring political debate on the wearing of the veil", saying that passing a new law would just "fan the flames" of a French identity crisis and lead to "exclusion".

France's high number of state-registered childminders — recently praised by Britain's Conservative party as something to emulate — includes many Muslim women. That their work might be limited on the basis of religious beliefs and clothing was controversial and caused a row on the left. There are choices which are non-choices.

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They have never minded about my headscarf. For childminders now, it feels like the state wants to question us about our religion in terms of being fit for the job.

This is unfair, discriminatory and absurd. I feel I have to hide the few religious books in my apartment, hide my identity. This phenomenon has been coined "the new veiling" by A. This model does not always materialize perfectly or uniformly according to orthodox tradition; the veils of French Muslim women tend to be less austere in their use of color and material.

Other perhaps more specifically France-centered arguments were voiced at the time of this controversy in order to justify students' wearing of the scarf in public schools:. There also exists a notable minority of French non-Muslims who have expressed support for the right to wear the veil in public schools. According to some feminist groups, as well as some human rights advocacy groups, wearing the scarf can symbolize a woman's submission to men. It is often speculated that forbidding the hijab would limit freedom.

Rather, the argument put forward by some feminists is that the hijab is not a free choice, but a result of social pressures i. These arguments are shared by some Islamic feminists. Thus, Fadela Amara , the former president of the organisation Ni Putes Ni Soumises , stated that: "The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women, and therefore has no place in the mixed, secular spaces of France's public school system.

Certain individuals and associations consider the scarf to be a symbol of belonging to the Muslim community. According to this line of reasoning, women who wear the veil display their religious and community affiliation, which harms the unity and secularism of the French Republic. However, in December , President Chirac extended this policy for all public secondary education establishments, risking fanning the tensions between communities within the multicultural French society. France is home to both the largest Jewish and Muslim minorities in Western Europe. A strong majority [19] of French educators opposes the veil in general, and particularly in classes.

The arguments put forward are connected to both secularism and feminist arguments, a majority of French educators being women. The majority of French people, according to a survey conducted in the last four months of , [20] responded that they would be in favor of a law forbidding the veil in schools. Many individuals and organizations have been opposed to the idea of a law forbidding the veil since it was first proposed.

Thus, when some feminists began defending the headscarf on the grounds of "tradition", Fadela Amara countered: "It's not tradition, it's archaic! French feminists are totally contradictory. When Algerian women fought against wearing the headscarf in Algeria , French feminists supported them. But when it's some young girl in a French suburb school, they don't. They define liberty and equality according to what colour your skin is.

It's nothing more than neocolonialism. Some would argue that the government attempting to protect Muslim women from the supposed repressiveness of the hijab is a form of paternalism. The banning of the hijab can be viewed as just another way of controlling how women dress by a patriarchal society. A third interpretation of the principle of secularity based on its original formulation recalls that, according to the law, "all are equal to show and express their religious opinions in public as well as in private", and that the French state has the responsibility to guarantee access to free, public education to all Frenchmen.


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Another argument is that making it illegal sends a message that hate crimes may be more tolerable. In December , President Jacques Chirac decided that a law should explicitly forbid any visible sign of religious affiliation in public schools, "in the spirit of secularism". The law, sometimes referred to as " the veil law ", was voted in by the French parliament in March It forbids the wearing of any "ostentatious" religious articles, including the Islamic veil, the Jewish kippa , and large Christian crosses.

In many cases, the exact extent of possible application of the law is hard to ascertain, and has led to further complications: For example, is the law applicable to something other than the Islamic veil which covers the hair, such as a bandana, which does not outwardly indicate religious affiliation? Eventually, the case was settled in court see below. Would veiled parents be able to enter their children's schools? The Mediator of the Republic has agreed with this stance. However, in some cities, such as Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis , where integration of large numbers of Muslims is an acute problem, veiled parents are frequently denied entry.

In May , the mother of a student was denied permission to run a stand at her son's school festival. After much publicity, the interdiction was lifted. On May 14, , the High authority for the struggle against discrimination and for equality HALDE affirmed that veiled parents should be allowed to attend school activities. While the law forbidding the veil applies to students attending publicly funded primary schools and high schools, it does not refer to universities. Applicable legislation grants them freedom of expression as long as public order is preserved.

In public hospitals, employees are expected to respect the principle of secularism.

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France debates ban on Muslim veils in universities

In nursing schools, interviews are an official requirement for entry, during which applicants may be asked if they are willing to remove their veil either altogether or for the purpose of wearing a disposable cap, such as those worn in operating rooms. Some court decisions have clarified issues remained open by the law, and its legality. Wearing either a Sikh subturban or a bandana were then denied by the supreme court.

Although the cases dated prior to the law, the Court rationale was consistent with the law: the ECHR held that the national authorities were obliged to take great care to ensure that Throughout the process legislation banning religious head-scarves in France has been met with widely varied reactions.

On 12 of August , the mayor of Cannes in southern France has banned full-body swimsuits known as " burkinis " from the beach because it was considered as symbol of Islamic extremism and might spark scuffles, as France is the target of Islamist attacks. After the mayor's decision, the French council of the state has fully endorsed the Burkini ban, so the French police was tasked to force any Muslim woman who appears in public with burkini to remove it. In France, particularly on Nice beach near to the location of the terrorist lorry attack where 84 people killed on Bastille Day , four armed police officers holding handguns, batons, and pepper spray forced a Muslim woman, who seemed to be sleeping on the beach, to take off her burkini protecting her modesty.

The woman was warned about the new dress code on the beach. In addition, she was fined 38 euro for wearing the swim wear. On the 25 August , the Human Rights League and anti-Islamophobia groups have described the ban as a dangerous and illegal threat on the basic freedoms, particularly freedom of belief and religion. The UN , Spain , Italy , Germany , and Canada have criticized and ruled out France's ban on burkini because it is a very clear violation of human rights, and it doesn't respect Muslim women's dignity and modesty.

The burkini bans have triggered a fierce debate about the wearing of the full-body swimsuit, women's rights, and the French state's strictly guarded secularism.