French Debate Extending Ban On Muslim Headscarf

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In France, there's a long-running debate over the Muslim headscarf. Some people say it doesn't fit in France's secular society. But other people say that kind of talk conflates the veil with the real problem of Islamist radicalism. The latest uproar started over a school field trip. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The fifth-graders had just taken their seats inside the regional parliament of Burgundy in eastern France when Julien Odoul, a member of the far-right National Rally party, began to call for a woman in the audience to remove her veil.

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JULIEN ODOUL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Madame has the right to wear it at home, but not here in a democratic institution in this secular republic," he said. Odoul called the scarf a statement of political Islam and an insult to all the women trying to escape Islamist subjugation.

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ODOUL: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Other members of the parliament were outraged by Odoul's actions, and the video of the uproar went viral. So did the picture of a little boy crying on his veiled mother's shoulder. Odoul's behavior has been unanimously condemned, but the underlying angst he expressed over the veil is shared by many French people. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said incidents like this should be handled differently in the future.

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JEAN-MICHEL BLANQUER: (Through interpreter) We should be able to have a civil conversation to tell the mother we prefer she not wear the veil.

BEARDSLEY: A reporter asked the minister why Muslim women should not wear their veils.

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BLANQUER: Because the veil is not acceptable in our society. It's not forbidden, but it's not something to encourage because of what it says about the feminine condition, which is not in conformity with our values.

BEARDSLEY: There's some tension in France after a radicalized Paris police employee stabbed and killed four of his colleagues last month. There are those who link the veil to extremism. Nadine Morano, a leading member of the mainstream conservative party, said tougher measures are needed.

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NADINE MORANO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I'm in favor of completely banning the veil in public," she said. "It's a tool of communication, and we have to disarm radical Islam." A bill banning mothers who accompany school outings from wearing the headscarf was just proposed in the Senate. Current law says teachers and students can't wear ostentatious religious symbols in public schools, but it says nothing about parents.

Yasser Louati is head of the Justice and Liberties for All Committee. He says the hysteria over the veil is due to the fact that many French people believe Muslim women are forced to wear it by male members of their family.

YASSER LOUATI: These women are stuck between two choices. They are either victims, or they are culprits daring to show their religious affiliation. France again is in a never-ending debate because it cannot accept the rising visibility of Muslims.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Last weekend, thousands of non-Muslims and Muslims like Samira Kader took to the streets of Paris to protest what they say is rising Islamophobia and the marginalization of women wearing the veil.

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SAMIRA KADER: (Through interpreter) When you wear a veil, you can't choose the job you want, and you can have trouble taking your kid to school. And at any moment, you have to be ready to be singled out.

BEARDSLEY: Secularism was enacted in France in 1905 to keep the powerful Catholic Church out of state affairs. But secularism now means more, says former Belgian senator Alain Destexhe.

ALAIN DESTEXHE: When you live in France, you have to adapt not only to French law but also to some extent to French customs. There is a feeling in France, but also Belgium, that more and more Muslim people are not really integrated in French society. So the problem is not only the scarf. The scarf is only the symbol.

BEARDSLEY: Destexhe says it's a symbol of those who push for separate swimming pool hours for men and women and protest the teaching of evolution in schools.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In the northern suburbs of Paris, Djamila Fliti is picking up her granddaughter at kindergarten. Dressed in jeans and a veil, Fliti says she's disgusted to see this debate still going on. Twenty years ago, she was told she couldn't go on her daughter's class trip because of her religious veil.

DJAMILA FLITI: (Through interpreter) Where is the republic? I'm French, but sometimes I don't feel integrated into this society simply because I wear a headscarf.

BEARDSLEY: Fliti says she fought her exclusion and won, and she accompanied her daughter's class trip that day to a Christmas market. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.