French Socialists deny plan to scrap school headscarf ban in anti-racism row

France's Socialist government has denied claims that it is preparing to scrap the ban on Islamic headscarves in schools. Right-wing politicians claimed that the French republic was "in danger" after a newspaper reported suggestions by study groups set up by the government to discuss integrating immigrants into French society.

UMP chief Jean-François Copé sees a danger to the French republic in some anti-racist proposals
UMP chief Jean-François Copé sees a danger to the French republic in some anti-racist proposals Reuters/Benoît Tessier

The "report" - in reality a summary of analyses and proposals by community workers and researchers - is a "total breach with our vision of republican assimilation", thundered Jean-François Copé of the mainstream right UMP after the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro published its version of what was contained in its 300 pages a month after it was submitted to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

"It would no longer be up to immigrants to adopt French culture but to France to abandon its culture, its values, its language, its history and its identity to adapt to the cultures of others," he went on before concluding, "Our republic would be in danger if you ceded to the temptation to implement even the smallest part of a report whose intention is to deconstruct this republic ..."

Copé vowed to defend "secularism" and the "indivisible" French republic, throwing in the ban on the burka in public places and Clovis and Joan of Arc for good measure.

Not to be outdone, or at least not to be completely squeezed out of the debate, his rival for the UMP's leadership, ex-prime minister François Fillon, joined the fray with the claim that the document "would divide the French and feed all extremisms", while far-right leader Marine le Pen said that its implementation would mean "the definitive abandonment of the republican model and the creation of an ultra-sectarian and divided society".

Le Figaro's front page on Friday highlighted several "worrying" proposals, including changing the history syllabus, making racial harassment a crime and scrapping the ban on "visible signs of religion" in schools, a measure that prevents school students wearing the Islamic hijab and prevents mothers taking part in school trips if they wear it.

"That's not at all the position of the government," snapped President François Hollande when tackled on the question while visiting French Guiana.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was even testier, calling Copé "irresponsible" and a "liar" and declaring that the government "obviously" had no intention of scrapping the headscarf ban.

"The government is right to debate integration policy," Socialist MP Thierry Mandon told RFI. "There is a problem, because these policies are not working."

But he was "a little surprised" when he read some of the proposals, he said. "I think the authors are on the wrong track. The solution for integration is to identify more with the republic, rather Anglo-Saxon-style integration which ends up creating communities. What’s certain is that the proposals that the government will adopt will be quite different from those in this report. They seem to be dead ends to me."

The report contains different and sometimes contradictory suggestions from different participants, some arguing for more open recognition of ethnic minorities and the discrimination they suffer, others calling for a "colour-blind" approach of tackling poverty regardless of race.

That division echoes differences on the French left, including inside the Socialist Party itself.

That's why the government posted the document online "with the utmost discretion", comments centrist daily Le Monde, pointing out that an earlier report by civil servant Thierry Tuot, submitted in February, was quietly forgotten about.

Whether the fruit of the study groups' labours will suffer a similar fate in the end is open to question, the paper says.

A government seminar scheduled for December has now been transformed into a meeting in early January to which ministers have been invited to bring proposals to tackle racism.

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