<i>Yarmulkes</I>, Crosses & <i>Hijabs</I>

France, a self-declared democratic nation of liberalism, is showing its true colors by suppressing the tried and true democratic values of Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech.

Gary Fitleberg

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France, a self-declared democratic nation of liberalism, is showing its true colors by suppressing the tried and true democratic values of Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech.

Rather than single out one religion, it is attempting to show that it is democratic and not discriminatory by banning all religious symbols of expression in public schools - including Jewish skullcaps (yarmulkes), Christian crosses and Islamic headscarves (hijabs). This gives an entirely new meaning to the concept of separation of church and state. The proposed law is allegedly intended to reaffirm the country's secular tradition.

A display of unity in support of Jacque Chirac's initiative was exhibited when, even across ideological lines, 494 members of France's National Assembly voted in favor of the measure, while only 36 voted against it. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass next month. The ban would go into effect in September and prohibit "conspicuous" religious apparel and symbols while permitting smaller items.

In other words, size matters when it comes to the French and democratic ideals and values. Should there be checkpoints to measure the size at schools, much like those used in amusement parks?

French leaders called the vote a victory for the religious neutrality of the state and the rights of women. How so, we clearly do not know. Education Minister Luc Ferry auspiciously analogized, blamed and celebrated by declaring it a victory against "a spectacular rise in racism and anti-Semitism in the last three years" that troubled schools in ethnically mixed neighborhoods. We should believe that anti-Semitism was the reason for the maneuver. After all, the French should be trusted as experts on anti-Semitism.

Blame the Jews. Again.

Ironically, the Muslims living in France are the law's strongest opponents. Perhaps because the Jews in France are used to discrimination for many years. The measure has been of particular concern to France's Islamic community, the largest in Western Europe with about 5 million people. The decision provoked criticism in the Arab word and in a few Western nations, as well. Critics fear the measure would stifle religious freedom and stigmatize Muslim communities, which are already angry and alienated.

The head scarf debate is seen as a political gambit by Chirac to appeal to conservative voters. The far-right National Front, which blames immigrants and Islam for France's socioeconomic problems, remains a potent force in regional elections set for next month. The maneuver is reminiscent of blaming immigrants and Judaism for socioeconomic problems throughout France's history with its Jews. Now it is the Muslims' turn.

Farouk Alaoui, Secretary-General of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, commented, "This is a dark day for the republic," adding, "The will to exclude has been made concrete by a vote on which the Right and Left agreed. It's hard to talk about an open and tolerant republic with this law."

This is the truth. Jews, Christians and Muslims can all agree. It is a shame that they can not share together in unity their opposition, in support of the one G-d that they all follow.

Instead of singling out one religion for discrimination, it is democratically discriminating against all three monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - and suppressing the inherent democratic Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech, in an extremist attempt at separation of church and state. Instead of allowing all to express their religion and speech, France shows the world that they are not as democratic and liberal as they portray themselves to be. To use a French word, the maneuver is complete hypocrisy.

Chirac proposed the measure at the recommendation of a "commission of distinguished experts", who said a rise in aggressive Islamic extremism is affecting public institutions such as schools and hospitals. Until now, Chirac has cultivated the constituency and popularity among French Muslims and in the Arab world, especially after his dogged opposition to the war in Iraq. But nothing lasts forever.

First, Iraq. Next, Chirac.