France seems poised to become the first Western European country to ban the wearing of Islamic veils, large Christian crosses, and Jewish skullcaps in public schools. French President Jacques Chirac has declared himself in favor of such a law.
Mr. Chirac's speech before a select audience at the Elysee presidential palace was long awaited, even if his declarations surprised very few people.
Mr. Chirac said he backed a law banning the displays of so-called conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. But he said more discreet religious accessories, such as small crosses and stars of David, along with the Muslim Hand of Fatma, should be tolerated. The president said the ban on larger religious symbols is important tomaintain France's secular character.
The French president also called for separate legislation, prohibiting patients at public hospitals from refusing treatment because of the gender of their doctors.
Mr. Chirac's remarks partly fall in line with a report published last week by a special presidential commission on secularity. But the French president did not support the commission's recommendation to make the Muslim holy day of Eid el Kabir, and the most sacred Jewish holiday Yom Kippur public holidays.
At the same time, he said Muslims and Jews should be informally granted time off for their holy days. And he vowed to fight against discrimination facing France's ethnic immigrant population.
Mr. Chirac said he understood the feelings of ethnic immigrants who are barred from jobs or housing because of their names. All French citizens regardless of their origins, he said, are the sons and daughters of France.
Most French conservative and leftist politicians have backed a law banning religious symbols in public schools. The issue became a top item of debate in France this year, as schools have been reacting in particular to female students who refuse to take off their headscarves or veils.
But the headscarf question took on new dimensions, pitting devout Muslims against France's fiercely secular traditions. Some Muslims have called for separate-sex swimming hours in public pools, and some Muslim students refuse to attend physical education classes with students of the opposite sex.
Teachers have also complained that some ethnic Arab students refuse to let them teach about the Holocaust.
The religious symbols ban has also divided the Muslim community, along with leaders of other faiths.
Some French Muslim, Jewish and Catholic leaders have expressed concern about the plan to ban large religious symbols in schools. But the French Protestant Federation said it supported the commission's report. And some liberal Muslim leaders support the plan, too, arguing that it will help bring French Islam into the modern age.
A poll published by Le Parisien newspaper found 69 percent of the French people support a ban on religious symbols in schools.