France denies plan to reverse veil ban in schools
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The French government has denied it is planning to reverse a ban on Islamic veils in the country’s schools, following the publication of a controversial report that has sparked outcry among the country’s conservatives.
It says France’s schools should allow Muslim pupils to wear headscarves, something that has been outlawed since 2004, as well as promote the teaching of Arabic and African languages.
The report, compiled by a panel of experts, also recommends a number of other changes designed to provide greater recognition to the "Arab-oriental dimension" of France’s identity.
These include changing street and place names, an overhaul of the history curriculum taught in schools and the creation of a special day to honour the contribution of immigrant cultures.
Authorities and the media should be forbidden to refer to people's nationality, religion or ethnicity and a new offence of "racial harassment" should be created, said the document, which was posted on the prime minister's official website last month but only came to public attention Friday after a report in French daily Le Figaro.
‘Explosive and irresponsible’
France’s main opposition party, the conservative UMP, immediately labelled the proposals “explosive and irresponsible”.
“This report is an attempt to make multiculturalism the new model for France,” said party leader Jean-Francois Copé in a statement.
"It would no longer be up to immigrants to adopt French culture, but for France to abandon its own culture, language, history and identity to adapt to other people's cultures.”
He accused the government of using the report to deliberately drive voters towards the far-right and anti-immigration National Front (FN) party in order to weaken the UMP.
FN leader Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, said implementing the report’s recommendations would be tantamount to "a declaration of war on the French people".
However, the governing Socialist Party was quick to distance itself from the document’s proposals, with Ayrault telling reporters that there were no plans to drop the headscarf ban – seen by many as the most controversial aspect of the report.
"Just because I receive a report doesn't make it government policy," he said.
President François Hollande weighed in on the debate Friday night, stressing that the report did “not at all represent the government's position”.
Speaking during a visit to French Guyana, Hollande specifically denied that the ban on Islamic veils in schools would be reversed.
Keeping religion out of the classroom
The ban on headscarves in schools was part of a wider law forbidding the wearing of any religious symbols, including crucifixes and Jewish skull caps.
It sparked widespread protests at the time but was backed by the majority of the voting public.
France has a long tradition of strict secularism in public institutions, particularly in schools where an absence of religion has long been considered essential to the country’s ideals of equality and freedom of conscience.
Earlier this year, the government introduced a “secularism charter” for schools - a document displayed in every state-funded school in the country explaining why religion should be kept out of the classroom.
But despite public backing, the country’s secularism laws have been a major source of friction with France’s Muslims and other minority groups, many of whom feel stigmatised by the authorities.
The integration of France’s Muslim population, the largest in Western Europe at an estimated five million, has become an increasingly sensitive issue in the country.
According to a poll published by Le Figaro last year, six out of ten French people believe the influence of Islam in France is “too big” and 43 percent see the religion as a “threat” to national identity.