[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Thursday, 18 December, 2003, 12:15 GMT
Chirac on the secular society
French President Jacques Chirac addressed the nation on 17 December 2003 with his views on secularism in French society. These are excerpts from his speech:

The debate on the principle of secularism goes to the very heart of our values. It concerns our national cohesion, our ability to live together, our ability to unite on what is essential...

Many young people of immigrant origin, whose first language is French, and who are in most cases of French nationality, succeed and feel at ease in a society which is theirs.

Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience. It protects the freedom to believe or not to believe
This kind of success must also be made possible by breaking the wall of silence and indifference which surrounds the reality of discrimination today.

I know about the feeling of being misunderstood, of helplessness, sometimes even of revolt, among young French people of immigrant origin whose job applications are rejected because of the way their names sound, and who are too often confronted with discrimination in the fields of access to housing or even simply of access to leisure facilities.

There needs to be an increase in awareness and a forceful reaction. This will be the mission of the independent authority whose task is to fight against all forms of discrimination and which will be set up as early as at the beginning of next year.

All of France's children, whatever their history, whatever their origin, whatever their beliefs, are the daughters and sons of the republic.

They have to be recognised as such, in law but above all in reality. By ensuring respect for this requirement, by reforming our integration policy, by our ability to bring equal opportunities to life, we shall bring national cohesion to life again.

We shall also do so by bringing to life the principle of secularism, which is a pillar of our constitution. It expresses our wish to live together in respect, dialogue and tolerance. Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience. It protects the freedom to believe or not to believe...

Neutrality

It is the neutrality of the public sphere which enables the harmonious existence side by side of different religions. Like all freedoms, the freedom to express one's faith can only have limits in the freedom of others, and in the compliance with rules of life in society. Religious freedom, which our country respects and protects, must not be abused, it must not call general rules into question, it must not infringe the freedom of belief of others.

It cannot be tolerated that under the cover of religious freedom, the laws and principles of the republic are challenged
This subtle, precious and fragile balance, constructed patiently over decades, is ensured by respect for the principle of secularism... This is why it is included in Article 1 of our constitution. This is why it is not negotiable┐

But its concrete application is coming up against new and growing difficulties in the world of work, in public services - in particular in schools and hospitals.

It cannot be tolerated that under the cover of religious freedom, the laws and principles of the republic are challenged. Secularism is one of the great achievements of the republic. It is a crucial element of social peace and of national cohesion. We cannot allow it to be weakened. We have to work to consolidate it.

Xenophobia

To this end, we have to really make sure that the same respect, the same consideration is given to all major faiths. In this respect, Islam, a more recent religion on our territory, completely has its place among the major religions present on our soil┐

The teaching of religious life in schools should be developed.
Respect, tolerance, the spirit of dialogue will also become rooted once there is knowledge and an understanding of others, to which all of us must attach the greatest importance.

This is why it seems essential to me today that the teaching of religious life in schools should be developed.

We also need to carry out, with vigilance and firmness, a relentless fight against xenophobia, racism, and in particular against anti-Semitism. Let us not accept the fact that insults are becoming commonplace, let us not play down any gesture, any attitude, any remark. Let us not allow anything to pass. This is a question of dignity┐

We also need to reaffirm secularism in schools, because schools must be preserved absolutely. Schools are above all a place where our shared values are acquired and transmitted

Religious clothes

There is of course no question of turning schools into a place of uniformity, of anonymity, where religious life or belonging would be banned.

It is my view that the wearing of clothes or of symbols which conspicuously demonstrate religious affiliations must be banned in state schools
It is a question of enabling teachers and head teachers, who are today in the front-line and confronted with real difficulties, to carry out their mission serenely with the affirmation of a clear rule.

Until recently, as a result of a reasonable custom which was respected spontaneously, nobody ever doubted that pupils, who are naturally free to live their faith, should nevertheless not arrive in schools, secondary schools or A-level colleges, in religious clothes.

It is not a question of inventing new rules or of shifting the boundaries of secularism. It is a question of expressing, with respect but clearly and firmly, a rule which has been part of our customs and practices for a very long time.

I have consulted, I have studied the report of the Stasi commission, I have examined the arguments put forward by the National Assembly committee [on secularism], by political parties, by religious authorities, by major representatives of major currents of thought.

In all conscience, it is my view that the wearing of clothes or of symbols which conspicuously demonstrate religious affiliations must be banned in state schools.

No new holidays

Discreet symbols - for example a cross, a star of David or a hand of Fatimah - will of course remain possible.

On the other hand, conspicuous signs, that is to say those which, when they are worn, lead to people immediately noticing and recognizing somebody's religious affiliation, would not be allowed.

I hope that no pupil would have to apologise for an absence which is justified by a major religious feast
These - the Islamic headscarf, whatever name it may be given, the skullcap or a cross of manifestly excessive dimensions - are out of place in state schools. State schools will remain secular.

This will of course require a law. I hope that parliament will pass it and that it will be fully implemented from the next school year...

In the application of this law, dialogue and consultations will have to be sought systematically before any decision.

On the other hand, and this issue has been raised [by the Stasi commission in its report], I do not think that new holidays should be added to the school calendar, which already includes many.

This would, moreover, create real difficulties for parents who work on those days.

Nevertheless, and as is already common practice, I hope that no pupil would have to apologise for an absence which is justified by a major religious feast, such as Yom Kippur or Eid al-Adha - provided, of course, the school was informed in advance.

It also goes without saying that major tests or exams must not be organised on those days, and chief education officers will be given instructions to this effect by the education minister.

Public sector rules

Basic rules of living together also need to be recalled. I am thinking of hospitals, where nothing can justify that a patient should, as a matter of principle, refuse treatment by a doctor of the other sex.

It would be a good idea for a secularism code to bring together all principles and rules relating to secularism
The law will have to establish this rule for all patients who seek treatment in the public sector.

In the same way, the labour minister will have to start necessary consultations, and if necessary submit a measure to parliament enabling employers to regulate the wearing of religious symbols for reasons of safety - this goes without saying - or contact with clients.

Generally speaking, I think it would be a good idea for a secularism code to bring together all principles and rules relating to secularism.

This code would for example be handed over to all state or public sector employees the day when they take up their service.

Monitors

Our fight for the values of the republic must lead us to commit ourselves resolutely in favour of the rights of women and their real equality with men
Moreover, the prime minister will set up, under his tutelage, a secularism monitoring body whose task would be to alert the French and the authorities to the risks of abuses or infringements of this essential principle.

Finally, our fight for the values of the republic must lead us to commit ourselves resolutely in favour of the rights of women and their real equality with men...

I declare very solemnly that the republic will oppose everything which separates people, everything which cuts people off, everything which excludes people.

The rule is that of the mixing of people, because it brings people together, because it treats all individuals on an equal basis, because it refuses to distinguish on the grounds of sex, origin, colour, religion...

In this way we can reaffirm the ambition which unites us, of building a future of progress and justice for our country and for our children. This is one of the great challenges our generations face.

We can, we have to, we are going to confront this challenge together, all together. Thank you.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Allan Little
"In the French Republic the schoolroom is sacrosanct"



RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific