France edged a step closer on Thursday to outlawing Muslim veils in schools after a cross-party commission of members of parliament backed legislation to ban all visible symbols of religious conviction from state-run institutions.
The decision by the 31-member commission is sure to inflame an already heated debate that cuts to the core of one of France's most pressing problems: how far the secular republic can accommodate the demands of Islam. Or, put more bluntly, is being Muslim compatible with being French?
The question is a vital one. With more than 5 million followers in France, an increasingly outspoken Islam -- now tainted, rightly or wrongly, in the public mind by notions of fundamentalism and terrorism -- has become the country's second-largest religion.
Opponents of a law on veils in schools, the decade-old dispute that has become the white-hot focus for the whole secular state debate, say it could further marginalize France's already disadvantaged Muslim immigrants, pushing them into the arms of the fundamentalists.
"In the current climate, where passions are running high, such a law will be felt by the Muslim community as a suspicion," said Dalil Boubakeur, the moderate iman of the Paris mosque and president of the French Muslim Council.
"It would be turning our back on the wise solution," he said.
Boubakeur is, unusually, backed by France's archbishops, who fear that new legislation would threaten the delicate century-old balance achieved in France between the primary Catholic faith and an overtly secular state.
"A law would reawaken old conflicts, confrontation and exclusions," Claude Dagens, the bishop of Angouleme, said last week.
The bishop of Evry, Michel Dubost, added: "Legislation would target the surface of things. The root problem is far bigger than that of headscarves in schools -- it is the whole huge question of how to successfully integrate third-generation Muslim immigrants in France."
But teachers and a clear majority of politicians are adamant that such legislation is the only solution. Under a 1989 court ruling, it is not illegal to wear religious symbols in state schools, considered by most French to be the near-sacred cornerstone of the republic and therefore the ideal place to transmit its core lay values. But the law does forbid "ostentatious" religious signs that "constitute an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda."
Headteachers and teaching staffs of individual schools periodically invoke this to justify the suspension or expulsion of Muslim girls who insist on wearing hijabs at school -- sometimes even to physical education classes.
The most recent high-profile case involved two teenagers, Alma and Lila Levy, from the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, who refused to remove their full headscarves before entering the classroom. Both girls, who were portrayed in the French press as having "fallen prey" to fundamentalists, were expelled earlier this month.
"Schools are not just public spaces, they must be autonomous places protected from aggressive proselytism, intolerance and polemic," said a Paris secondary school teacher Herve Ricard.
"Every religion must be treated the same, none must be singled out for favoritism or punishment. That is the intransigent condition of true neutrality; that is genuine secularity," he said.