PARIS: France should reverse decades of strict secularism to integrate its immigrant population better, allowing Muslims to wear headscarves in schools and promoting Arabic teaching, according to an iconoclastic report commissioned by the prime minister.
The document, part of a government review of integration policy, sparked an outcry among conservative opposition politicians and unease among the governing Socialists.
It said France, with Europe’s largest Muslim population, should recognise the “Arab-oriental dimension” of its identity, for example by changing street and place names, rewriting its history curriculum and creating a special day to honour the contribution of immigrant cultures.
Although ethnic statistics are officially banned, an estimated five million Muslims, originating mostly from former African colonies such as Algeria and Morocco, live in France.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who will chair a ministerial meeting next month on improving integration based partly on the report, told reporters there was no plan to drop the headscarf ban and distanced himself from the study.
“Just because I receive a report doesn’t make it government policy,” Ayrault said after the daily Le Figaro drew attention to the document, which was posted on the prime minister’s official website last month.
Among the proposals presented by senior civil servant Thierry Tuot and a group of experts was to forbid authorities and the media to refer to people’s nationality, religion or ethnicity, and the creation of a new offence of “racial harrassment”. They also recommended promoting the teaching of Arabic and African languages in French schools.
Ayrault said the aim was to recommend ways to fight discrimination and inequality to “get the republican model of integration working again because it has broken down”. Centre-right UMP party leader Jean-Francois Cope accused the government of pandering to the immigrant vote and denounced “an attempt to make multiculturalism the new model for France”.
“It would no longer be up to immigrants to adopt French culture, but for France to abandon its own culture, language, history and identity to adapt to other people’s cultures,” he said in a statement.