By Vicki Morris
"Tous ensemble." "All together." French president Jacques Chirac appropriated the slogan of the trade union movement to end his speech about the Stasi commission on the separation of church and state. He has taken to using that slogan.
The commission of 20 'wise men' headed by former minister Bernard Stasi was appointed in July 2003 and reported just before Christmas. They had heard testimony from 70 witnesses, ranging from education professionals through academics and religious leaders to the feminist writer of Iranian origin Chadhort Djavann, author of an influential book A bas le voile - "Down with the veil".
The government of prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is moving quickly to act on the recommendations of the commission. It hopes to begin implementing the new policy at the start of the next academic year.
Chirac pronounced himself in favour of the commission's main proposal: to ban the wearing in schools and colleges of conspicious symbols of religious or political allegiance.
Chirac did not refer directly in his speech to the wearing of political symbols - a badge or t-shirt? But there will be a ban on the wearing of a cross - unless it's 'discreet' - the Jewish skull cap, and the Muslim headscarf for girls.
Ostensibly this measure aims at ending confusion about the existing legal situation: currently schools can choose whether they interpret a law of 1905 separating state education from the church to support exclusions of pupils from school who persist in wearing religious symbols. In recent years, this has affected only a handful of young women wearing the Muslim headscarf (in France it is referred to as 'le voile' - 'the veil').
The original law might have been intended to apply only to the providers of education, not its consumers. Of course, the 1905 law and other legislation was passed to separate the state from a Catholic church, then very powerful. Chirac claims that the new law is about no privileges for or, he says, discrimination against any one religion in a society where there are many faiths and many people of no faith.
Different also from 1905, women and men are equal in the republic. Chirac's speech hinted - and only hinted, not said explicitly - that the aim of a proposed ban is to help liberate Muslim women from restrictions on their dress and movements.
Will the legislation help to forge the harmony that Chirac claimed it is for? That looks unlikely.
The proposed law is seen by many - and by most French Muslims - as a piece of discriminatory legislation adversely affecting their faith before all the others, and moreover, intended as such. The main Muslim organisations (and, for the most part, representatives of other religions) are likely to oppose it.
A recent opinion poll showed a big majority of the French population in favour of a ban on religious symbols, but a big majority of French Muslims against.
Why this now? Chirac's speech was heavy with praise for French republican traditions, and warned darkly but vaguely of tensions created by globalisation and the rise of fundamentalisms throughout the world that are forcing different cultural groups in on themselves.
"Communalism is not an option for France," he said.
He promised at the same time to combat the racism and discrimination, the social deprivation that might (he was vague here too) cause young people of immigrant communities to pooh-pooh the idea of their great common French heritage and the 'republican pact'.
Does he mean it? Of course he does not!
And in his speech there was no acknowledgement of the republic's less than glorious heritage of oppressing colonies.
Left-wingers in France are divided about the issue of a ban on religious symbols.
You will hardly find anyone to defend the idea that the headscarf is somehow liberating for young women.
One of the main far-left groups, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire has supported the few exclusions of Muslim girls from schools for wearing a headscarf where negotiation and compromise have failed. But it opposes the law.
The other main far-left group Lutte Ouvrière is more cautious, not supporting the proposed law but saying it could be "a point of support for all those girls who want to resist the sexist pressures they suffer".
Many groups central to the fight against the headscarf and for the rights of women, especially in Muslim communities, groups such as Ni Putes Ni Soumises, support a headscarf ban.
The main federation of teachers' unions is against. Gerard Aschieri, general secretary of the Federation Syndicale Unitaire (FSU), which organises teachers at all levels, said that such legislation would not get to the bottom of the problem.
"It is manifestly a political manoeuvre to show the government doing something. It's easier to produce a text than carry out a real policy against exclusion and an education policy that carries on the struggle for secularism."
It is indeed hard to take seriously the government's claim to be the champions of secularism. This is a government that subsidises the pupils of private including faith schools; they receive more public money per head than state school pupils. Will that anomaly be tackled in legislation? Whatever we think of the possible law, it will be once more one law for the rich and another for the rest. Those are the limits of Chirac's "tous ensemble".
- Read Chirac's speech and the report of the Stasi commission - in French - at www.laic.info
Other proposals contained in the Stasi commission report
- The government voted recently to do away with the annual day's holiday at Pentecost in order, it said, to spend the money saved on old people's welfare.
No surprise then that Chirac has rejected the Stasi commission's suggestion to add one day's holiday each to the school calendar for celebration of the Muslim Eid festival and the Jewish Yom Kippur festival.
- The scope of the legislation is likely to extend beyond schools and colleges to other public services. For instance, there could be a ban on women patients demanding to be treated by women health service staff.
- There could be a ban on women-only sessions at public swimming baths.