USCIRF Annual Report 2004 - France
|Publisher||United States Commission on International Religious Freedom|
|Publication Date||1 May 2004|
|Cite as||United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2004 - France, 1 May 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4855696fc.html [accessed 8 December 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
The Commission has directed its attention to France because of several recent trends or events that have affected conditions of religious freedom in that country. Official government initiatives and activities that target "sects" or "cults" have fueled an atmosphere of intolerance toward members of minority religious groups in France. There has been an upsurge in violence against Jewish persons and property. In addition, a new law banning certain religious garb in public schools threatens the religious freedom of many in France, especially Muslim women and girls, Jews, and Sikhs.
The government of France has taken active measures targeting certain minority religious groups, pejoratively characterized as "cults" or "sects," and the purported threats that these groups pose. These measures have taken a variety of forms, including the publication of official reports or lists characterizing specific groups as harmful or dangerous, and the creation of government agencies to investigate, monitor, and "fight" these groups. Among other consequences, these actions have created an atmosphere of hostility toward the members of several minority religious groups and threaten their right to religious freedom. These initiatives are particularly troubling because they are serving as models for countries in Eastern Europe and elsewhere where the rule of law and other human rights protections are much weaker than in France. In the past, French officials had traveled to several of these countries promoting its initiatives, although this practice reportedly has ceased. Other recent changes to French policy in this matter, including the restructuring of the main government agency concerned with this issue, have reportedly resulted in improvements in religious freedom protections. The Commission will continue to monitor the effects of these changes.
Anti-Semitic violence and other acts of anti-Semitism in France continue to be of concern. However, the French government appears to have taken several steps to address the problem since the spike in such incidents in the spring of 2002. For example, the government recently introduced a program to train French judges on ways to recognize hate crimes. More information about the Commission's concerns and activities with regard to anti-Semitism in Europe more generally can be found in the report on the OSCE, found in the Europe and Eurasia section of the Country Reports chapter.
In January 2004, the French government under President Jacques Chirac proposed a new law prohibiting students from wearing certain forms of religious clothing or symbols in French public schools. The proposal would ban dress or symbols that "conspicuously show religious affiliation," such as headscarves for Muslim girls, "plainly excessive" crosses for Christian children, skullcaps for Jewish boys, and turbans for Sikhs. Since many Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs consider it a religious obligation to cover one's head, there is concern that this law may violate France's international commitments, including the European Convention on Human Rights, under which each individual is guaranteed the freedom to manifest religion or belief, in public as well as in private. Under international law, the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief may be subject to limitation only as necessary to protect public order, health, safety, morals, and the rights and freedoms of others.
President Chirac called the proposed law necessary to maintain the secular (lai'c) nature of French schools. The legislation passed both houses of the legislature by very large margins in February and March 2004. It was signed into law on March 15, 2004 by President Chirac and is due to go into effect with the start of the new school year in the fall. The impact of the new law is to be evaluated one year after it has gone into effect. Reportedly, there are plans for similar legislation to cover the wearing of religious garb and symbols in other public institutions. In addition, there are reports that Belgium and several states in Germany are considering similar legislation regarding schools.
In February 2004, the Commission issued a public statement expressing concern over the proposed new law. The Commission expressed particular concern that the proposed restrictions may violate France's international human rights commitments. The Commission also stated that though increased immigration in France in recent years has created new challenges for the French government, including integration of these immigrants into French society as well as problems of public order, these challenges should be addressed directly, and not by inappropriately limiting the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief. The French government's promotion of its understanding of the principle of secularism should not result in violations of the internationally recognized individual right to freedom of religion or belief.
In its February 2004 statement, the Commission recommended that the U.S. government urge the government of France to ensure that any state regulations on public expression of religious belief or affiliation adhere strictly to international human rights norms. The French government and legislature should be urged to reassess this initiative in light of its international obligations to ensure that every person in France is guaranteed the freedom to manifest his or her religion or belief in public, or not to do so.
In addition, in July of last year, the Commission held meetings with senior French officials charged with religious affairs to discuss concerns about religious freedom in France and recent changes in official policies.