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France: Should religion be allowed in nurseries?

French MPs on Wednesday will put the spotlight on religion in France's nurseries, seven years after a woman was fired from a Paris crèche for refusing to remove her veil.

France: Should religion be allowed in nurseries?
The Baby Loup nursery in Paris where a woman was fired for wearing a headscarf. Photo: AFP
Lawmakers will on Wednesday be discussing a draft law proposed by the Radical Left Party, which was prompted by one particular case that has been dragged from court to court for years.
 
Fatima Afif, a nursery assistant, was sacked in 2008 by the “Baby Loup” creche for refusing to remove her Muslim headscarf at work. 
 
Critics called the move religious discrimination while others argued that it was perfectly in line with France's strict secularity laws that were made to protect children who were deemed too young to make up their own minds about religion.
 
Since 2004, these laws have stated that the wearing of religious symbols or clothing in France's public (state-run) schools is illegal.
 
The issue, however, is that Afif was sacked from a privately-owned nursery.  
 
In June last year, France's top court appeared to have put the matter to rest when it ruled that the nursery was right to fire the woman.
 
However, the buzz around the case never died down, and has prompted discussions about France's legal interpretations of secularism and the laws guaranteeing personal freedom of expression. 
 
The new proposals aim to clarify that any nurseries receiving public funds should be free from signs of religious expression, and that private nurseries watching over children aged six and under should be given the means to oblige staff to abide by restrictions on religious expression.
 
The move has left some displeased, including bishop Olivier Ribadeau Dumas of the Bishops' Conference of France. 
 
He said that broadening neutrality in religious matters to the private sphere was “not in the spirit of the Law of 1905,” referring to the French law that officially separates Church from State but allows religious expression.
 
France's strict secularity laws have often proved to be a touchy topic, and all the more since Islamist terrorists killed 17 people in Paris in January.
 
As recently as last month, France faced another outcry against its secularity laws after it emerged that a 15-year-old Muslim schoolgirl was twice banned from class for wearing a long black skirt seen as too openly religious.

HIJAB

Woman fined for wearing headscarf on Cannes beach

A Toulouse woman says she was told to pay a fine or leave a Cannes beach for wearing a headscarf, French media reported. The city's mayor has defended the decision of police.

Woman fined for wearing headscarf on Cannes beach
File photo: Loic Venance/AFP

The incident took place on Tuesday, August 16th, when the 34-year-old former air hostess was on holiday in Cannes.

The woman, originally from Toulouse, was wearing leggings, a tunic and her hijab – a headscarf covering her hair – while at La Bocca beach with her family.

“I wasn't there to provoke anyone,” the mother, named as Siam, told French news magazine L'Obs.

She said that three police officers approached her on the beach and told her she had to remove her headscarf or pay a fine.

They read her some of the text of the recently passed ban, which says anyone using the city's beaches must be wearing “correct clothing, respecting secularism, hygiene rules and security.” 

But Siam couldn't understand why her floral-patterned headscarf was considered as an “ostentatious” sign of religion, and says she wasn't planning to swim, so it couldn't have been due to reasons of hygiene.

However, the police reportedly ignored her protests and a crowd gathered around the family,

A journalist for France 4, Mathilde Cusin, watched the incident unfold. “I felt like I was watching a pack of hounds attack a woman who was sitting down, in tears, with her young daughter,” she said.

“Racist terms were used freely,” said Siam. “I was stunned. I heard things which no one had ever said to me, like 'Go home!' and 'we're Catholics here!'”

While some people defended the 34-year-old, Siam says around three quarters of beachgoers took the side of the police and demanded that she remove the veil or leave the beach. In the end, she paid the €11 fine, and has since contacted the Collectif Contre l'Islamophobie, a French organization which protects Muslims' rights.

Siam said the incident left her feeling “humiliated” and that she felt she was fined simply for being a Muslim.

The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, has supported the police officers, arguing that they were within their rights to fine anyone considered to be wearing an “ostentatious” symbol of faith, and that he had “no reason to doubt their judgment,”, according to La Depeche newspaper.

However, Lisnard confirmed that wearers of the hijab should not be affected by the ban and that anyone who felt they had been unjustly fined could contest the case, something Siam plans to do. He added that he didn't want Muslims to feel unwelcome on the beach, and said people of all religions were welcome. 

For Siam, this was the first time she had suffered discrimination, and she had hesitated to speak out about the experience for fear of drawing more negative attention, but decided to tell her story because of how shocked she was by the experience.

“My parents are French, my grandparents are French.. when they tell me to 'go home', it makes me laugh, it's racism, pure and simple.”

“In the country of human rights, I don't see any trace of the principles of liberté, égalité or fraternité,” said Siam.

The banning of the burqini, the full-body Islamic swimsuit, in Cannes and numerous other French towns, has provoked a strong reaction both within the country and worldwide. 

According to AFP, the ban applies to: “Clothing showing religious faith in an ostentatious way, because France and religious sites are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is capable of creating risks to public order.” 

The head of municipal services for the town, Thierri Migoule, told AFP that the ban did not aim to target all signs of faith, but rather “ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements with whom we are at war.”