Since Sept. 11 the spotlight has been on religion as a potential cause of divisions and conflict. Governments are divided on how best to deal with religious freedoms and the religious minorities within their borders; I hope that none take France’s example.

The French government has decided that any form of religious symbolism in schools contravenes the separation of church and state – the secularism that is one of the founding principles of the French republic. The religious symbols that are banned from schools by a law passed last month include Muslim headscarves, Jewish yarmulkes and Sikh turbans.

This in itself may sound like a good idea to many of us, especially here in the U.S. where the line between church and state has become increasingly blurred under the Bush administration. However this decision was not taken simply to buttress French secularism.

It is estimated that 11 percent of the French population is Muslim. To put this in perspective, according to the U.S. Census, 13 percent of the U.S. population is African American. Clearly, Muslims are a sizable minority within France.

2004 marks the 20th anniversary of marches and demonstrations in 1984 by predominantly Muslim immigrants seeking equal rights and citizenship within France. This year, demonstrations took place in France and around the world protesting the passing of this new law, echoing in many ways the message of two decades ago.

The language used by some French politicians to describe this law is not the language of equality and secularism; it is the language of appeasement of the far right. The former education minister who chaired the commission that made the recommendations on the new law said there are “without any doubt forces in France that are trying to destabilize the republic, and it’s time for the republic to react.” Surely schoolgirls in veils or Jewish youths wearing skullcaps are not enough to destabilize the entire French nation. It is obvious that there is much more going on here.

Thinly veiled prejudices can be heard from non-political supporters of the law as well, like French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, who said, “You cannot denounce what has been going on Afghanistan while tolerating the veil in Europe – even if women claim they are wearing it voluntarily.” Instantly this law ceases to be about secularism, and becomes a way to equate traditionalist Muslims in the West with the Taliban and Islamic extremism.

The unspoken message from many is that the West must save these misguided children. This legislation may in fact have the opposite effect of the one intended, and push Muslim youths away from the French public school system altogether and into private religious schools, thus damaging the very integration it purports to assist.

It is no coincidence that this law was passed close to regional elections in France, and a year before national elections. Immigration is a big issue in France, and since Sept. 11 Muslims in particular have become a soft target. France’s Muslim population is generally poor, the children and grandchildren of people who emigrated from France’s former colonies to work as laborers. The families of these laborers are still struggling to deal with the poverty and discrimination that they themselves suffered. It is all too easy to scapegoat such a disadvantaged group.

In 2002 Jean Marie le Pen caused a huge stir in French politics by winning almost 17 percent of the vote in France’s presidential elections and qualifying for the second round of voting. Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, is an outright bigot and racist who has described the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail of history” and has stated, “Yes, I do believe in the inequality of races.” In 2000 le Pen was barred from the European Parliament for assaulting a French Socialist candidate running in French elections in 1997.

2002 also saw an assassination attempt against President Jacques Chirac by a gunman associated with neo-Nazi groups.

That a group as far to the right as the National Front can gain such support within France, and become the second largest political party, points to deep divisions within French society, and deeply held prejudices and mistrust between its different communities. It is also no coincidence that the language used by more mainstream politicians to describe the law enforcing secularism is echoed by statements by le Pen, who is always glad to speak out against “the promotion of Islam in our country, with its long Christian tradition.”

President Chirac would do well to pay close attention to the words of Trevor Phillips, chairman of the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality. Writing recently in the Guardian, Phillips wrote of the hope by some that “by appeasing racism, they’ll make it go away,” but as he goes on to say, “This is a beast with an insatiable appetite.”

Cian Dolan is a Young Communist League member and community activist. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.