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We need a laicity watchdog, MP says

Yves Jégo suggests the setting up of a high authority for Church/State separation as France prepares for Islam debate

A NEW watchdog is needed to oversee the values of the secular French state, according to one MP.

Yves Jégo’s remarks have come as France prepares for a national debate on issues surrounding religion/state separation, with a particular emphasis on Islam.

Mr Yégo, who is also a mayor in the Seine-et-Marne and vice-president of a centre-right faction of the ruling UMP, the Parti Radical, says a Haute Autorité de la Laïcité would take a neutral stance and avoid the values of secularism being hijacked by the far right.

“It could, for example, give advice to mayors, combining tolerance of religions and protection of the public sphere, which must not be invaded by religion,” he said.

UMP general secretary Jean-François Copé said in an interview with Le Figaro that the debate on laïcité led naturally from one held in 2009 on “national identity”, which, he said was found to be “quietly fracturing”.

It would focus on how France can reaffirm its “republican pact”, ie. its core values. “Now we’ve made the diagnosis, we have to come up with propositions and define together what a modern kind of laicity is for 2011.”

He denied the party was “stigmatising Islam”. “Today those who stigmatise come either the National Front, which caricatures to excess the practices of our Muslim countrymen, or from Islamic fundamentalists who, for example over the burqa issue, want to use religion for political ends.”

However the 1905 law on separation of Church and State must be protected at all costs, he said.

Christian Estrosi, MP and Mayor of Nice, has, however, raised doubts about the timeliness of the secularism debate. He said on Europe 1 radio that he thought the topic was too sensitive because of the revolts taking place in North Africa and the Middle East.

He added the best way to deal with laicity was at a local level, with “continual dialogue” with religious communities. For example, he had persuaded religious groups not to have prayers in the streets of Nice, which he said was not allowed under the laws of the secular state.

Having set up his town as an example, he found himself shortly afterwards having to speak out against a provocative stunt by far right group Nissa Rebela, which deliberately organised a pork and wine party outside a local mosque.

“I am obliged to stand up against those who fan flames of hated against people who are different,” he said.

President Sarkozy, meanwhile, having called for the laicity discussion, is once again being targeted in the French press for his perceived bias towards Roman Catholicism, having praised France’s “magnificent Christian heritage” while visiting the cathedral in Puy-en-Velay. “The France of the roots, this is the France we love,” he said.

Photo: © ajancso - Fotolia.com

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