France has been urged to consider extending its contentious 2004 ban on Muslim headscarves in schools by also forbidding students from wearing the garments in the country’s universities, French newspaper Le Monde claimed on Monday.
According to Le Monde, a report by the High Council of Integration (HCI), which is set to be delivered to the government later in the year, makes 12 recommendations aimed at defusing a "growing number of disputes" stemming from religious differences at higher education institutions.
The key and almost certainly most controversial recommendation HCI makes is to forbid the "wearing of religious symbols openly in lecture theatres and places of teaching and research" at French universities.
A controversial 2004 law prohibits the wearing or open display of religious symbols in all French schools, inlcluding crucifixes, Jewish skull caps and the Muslim headscraf - the Hijab, but does not apply to universities.
A similarly contentious law was introduced in April 2011 which effectively banned the wearing in public of the full face veil, the niqab. It did not however forbid the wearing of the hijab headscarf.
The authors of the HCI report have been made aware of a number of problems and disputes centred around religious differences that are occuring at universities and are keen to ensure "religious neutrality" in France's establishments of higher education.
Among the issues faced in French universities according to the HCI are "underground acitivity of religious groups", "demands to be excused from attendance on religious grounds" and "disagreements over the curriculum".
There have also been reports of students refusing to work in mixed sex study groups.According to Le Monde, the HCI says the freedom of expression granted to users of higher education "should not affect educational activities and public order".
President of the HCI Benoit Normand confirmed that the report was passed over to the France’s National Observatory on Secularism earlier this year but “will not be made public until the end of the year”.
For his part, Jean-Louis Bianco, president of the government linked National Observatory on Secularism, poured cold water on the report, saying the “issue of head scarves in universities is not on the table”.
'No justification to ban veils in universities'
Some experts on secularism in France say there is no need to crackdown on religious symbols, particularly those belonging to Islam in French universities.
“Demonstrations of religion in universities have not increased in recent years. Secularism is not in danger,” Raphael Liogier, director of the Observatory on Religions and author of “The myth of Islamisation” told Europe 1 radio said.
“Wanting to ban the veil in school is justified by the need to protect children from the influence of their parents. But it makes no sense in higher education,” he added.
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However making a distinction between schools and universities has caused its own problems.
Earlier this year The Local reported how a university lecturer was foreced to apologise after ejecting a Muslim student from one of his classes for wearing the hijab.
The teacher, who had worked in secondary schools, had forgotten that the ban on headscarves did not apply to universities.
The veil ban continues to cause controversy in France and only last month the country's Interior Minister Manuel Valls was forced to defend the law after a weekend of rioting in a Paris suburb.
The violence followed a police stop on a woman who was wearing the full face veil in public. However local residents and police doubted the two days of clashes that followed were due to anger over the law and were more likely the result of historic tensions between youths and authorities.