French law against religious symbols in parliament sparks criticism

France’s parliament has banned lawmakers from wearing any religious symbols under a new “neutral” dress code. Members of the National Assembly must avoid “the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols, uniforms, logos or commercial messages or political slogans.” Any expression made in the chamber must be spoken, said François de Rugy, the president of the National Assembly.

In the past, lawmakers have included priests in religious garb, such as Henri Groues, better known as Abbe Pierre, and several Christian faith leaders were critical of the new restrictions on Wednesday. The head of the Protestant Federation of France, Francois Clavairoly, said the change had been made “in the spirit of obsessive radical secularism.”

Francois de Rugy defended the changes, saying they were in line with a 2004 law that banned schoolchildren and teachers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols.

That was seen by critics as penalizing Muslims in particular by banning headscarves and veils, but Jewish kippas were also covered by the regulations. “We’re adopting a framework and limits… to avoid any sort of provocation,” de Rugy said.

Lawmakers will be allowed to deviate from the new dress rules if they can justify their appearance as traditional clothing. Moetai Brotherson, an MP from the French Pacific island of Tahiti, will be authorized to continue wearing his lavalava, a traditional Polynesian skirt.

The prominent scholar of French secularism Jean Baubérot said he disliked the “stiffening” [of secularism], but said he did not find the measure “overtly anti-religious.” According to Baubérot, “it would be difficult for a deputy to wear religious signs in peace, which confirms the state of affairs.”

“For the moment, there is no problem, thus it’s a precaution,” said Yves Jégo (UDI-Agir). “The Republic has evolved, so has secularism,” confirmed Sylvain Waserman (MoDem).

The measure has faced several criticisms, however. Communist deputies said it was “contrary to the freedom of expression.”

“In a secular Republic, no one can be discriminated against according to their religious affiliation. This is a significant change to the concept of secularism that we have had for two hundred years,” said socialist deputy François Pupponi.

Philippe Gosselin saw it as “an abuse of the law,” given the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. Adding, “we are not a business or a public service subject to the principle of neutrality.”

The National Observatory on Secularism’s (lObservatoire de la laïcité) two deputies also criticized the measure. “You have to be careful not to go too far. If secularism is to say ‘no religion,’ the solution will be worse than the problem,” said Claude Goasguen. Nicole Dubre-Chirat also expressed opposition, “We are not functionaries, we are not neutral…I found out about this decision on the same day. We were not informed, we never debated it.”
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