Debate Over Muslim Veils Stirs Soul-Searching in France

Chirac Creates Commission to Examine Application of Principle of Laicism

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PARIS, JULY 6, 2003 ( A debate in France over Muslim girls who wear veils to school has taken a more formal tone with the creation of a government panel on laicism.

The Commission of Reflection on the Application of the Principle of Laicism was launched Thursday with a ceremony attended by key government officials.

President Jacques Chirac, author of the initiative, delivered an address in which he presented laicism as a basis to integrate religions, not to exclude them. Chirac explained that the commission will be based on two pillars.

The first is Article 10 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which states that «no man must be harassed because of his opinions, not even because of his religious ideas, as long as in manifesting them, the public order, established by law, is not disturbed.»

The second pillar is the 1905 law that sanctioned the separation of church and state and which, according to Chirac, «after having divided France, this great republican law unites her today, as it is adapted to the evolutions of French society, respecting the particularities of each religion.»

Cases such as that of the Muslim veil, however, trigger doubts about the application of those two principles. And that is why the commission was created. Its presidency has been entrusted to Bernard Stasi, the republic’s mediator and a former government Minister.

The debate became critical on April 19, when Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy declared before the Union of Muslim Organizations of France, that, under the law, the veil is not permitted in women’s ID photographs. Those who heard him described the statement as a «provocation.»

Schoolteachers and directors don’t know what to do when Muslim girls come to school with their faces covered by a veil. On some occasions, girls have been barred from participating in school activities unless they removed their veil, a decision that sparked opposition.

The new commission includes philosophers, jurists, historians, sociologists, a businessman and a high school director. The panel will have to present its proposals by year-end to Chirac, who did not exclude legislative proposals.

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