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French lawmakers postpone religious neutrality debate until after elections

Children playing in a French nursery.
Children playing in a French nursery. AFP/Lionel Bonaventure
3 min

France's parliament announced on Wednesday it would postpone a debate planned for this week over proposals to impose religious neutrality in private nurseries until after regional elections at the end of March. Groups protecting Christian, Muslim and secular interests have criticised the bill.

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The draft law, proposed by the Radical Left Party, part of the parliamentary majority of the Socialist Party, was adopted by the Senate in 2012 and validated last week by the National Assembly's Laws Commission.

It was due to be debated in the lower parliament on Thursday, but lawmakers said they were postponing it until after the elections due to its sensitive nature during a campaign period.

Bruno Le Roux, president of the Socialist Party group of MPs, expressed "regret" the debate coincided with the campaign for elections in France's département administrative districts, arguing the bill "does not pose any great difficulties" in legal terms but "leads to debates that are often far from the reality" of its proposals.

The proposals would oblige private nurseries, daycares and other establishments that watch over children aged six and under, and that receive public funds, to guarantee they are free from signs of religious expression on their premises and among their staff.

Establishments that do not receive public funds would be given the means to oblige employees who have contact with children to abide by restrictions on religious expression, in a clear reference to the case of Baby Loup, a nursery that fired a staff member for wearing an Islamic hijab.

In the past week, groups representing religious communities as well as France's secular values have come out against the draft law.

"Extending the obligation of neutrality in religious matters to the private sphere is not in the spirit of the Law of 1905," said bishop Olivier Ribadeau Dumas of the Bishops' Conference of France, referring to France's law that officially separates Church and State but guarantees religious freedom.

Abdallah Zekri, president of the Observatory Against Islamophobia within the French Council of the Muslim Faith, denounced a "tendency towards a policy of systematic religious intolerance, specifically led against Muslims".

Zekri said the bill threatened "the spirit of living together shown by French citizens on 11 January", a reference to public demonstrations condemning attacks by religious extremists in Paris.

The bill also garnered condemnation from Jean-Louis Bianco, a former Socialist government minister and now president of the Observatory of Secularism, a government body in operation since April 2013.

Bianco said it was "paradoxical" that the Radical Left Party would "attempt to adopt a proposal that is also part of the campaign platform of the Front National" and that he saw in the bill "a great danger for cohesion of the country itself".

The bill will enter debate in the National Assembly on 11 May.

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