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A woman wearing a full-face veil, or niqab, covers her eyes as she stands near police during an identity check when she arrived to demonstrate after calls on the internet by Islamic groups to protest over an anti-Islam video, in Lille September 22, 2012. In France, the publication of cartoons denigrating the Prophet Mohammad have stoked anger over an anti-Islam video and the authorities have banned all protests over the issue. It is illegal to wear face-covering headgear in France.

© Pascal Rossignol //Reuters

When children in France returned to school this month, they got textbooks, notebooks and something else: a new Charter of Secularism at School.

The 15-point document, unveiled with great fanfare by the Education Minister, reads like a constitution with strict dos and don'ts. On a bright red, pink and blue poster, it says students cannot object to lessons on religious grounds and cannot wear ostentatious faith symbols such as headscarves or crucifixes. Teachers aren't exempt either, with edicts requiring them to remain neutral with regards to politics and religion.

Secularism, the document says, "guarantees freedom of conscience for all."

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The charter is the latest step in France's prolonged and, at times, tortuous effort to create a secular society. For many in this country, secularism – or laïcité – is the cornerstone of a cohesive society where everyone is free to believe or not believe. But to others, laïcité has come to mean state-sponsored discrimination, something that has marginalized France's six million Muslims and created more divisions, not fewer.

And even though it has been woven into the fabric of French culture over two centuries, the state is struggling more than ever over how to apply laïcité in a modern, ethnically diverse nation – offering a cautionary lesson for Quebec as it considers a charter of values.

"Laïcité is really like the official religion of France," said Riva Kastoryano, a sociologist at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, who studies the relationships between minority groups and the state. The principle, she added, is that "it's better not to show any religion in the public space … This can avoid discrimination."

That has long been the rationale for laïcité, a desire to create a "generic French citizen" who has no outward sign of religious affiliation. It goes back to the revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille in 1789 to throw off the yoke of the monarchy and the Catholic Church. The concept ebbed and flowed during the 1800s but was codified into legislation in 1905 with the Law on the Separation of Churches and the State, which prohibited the government from recognizing, funding or endorsing any religion.

The law wasn't popular at first and it took decades before France worked out a kind of secular pact that saw religious symbols eliminated from all public spaces, including schools, hospitals and government offices.

By the 1960s and 70s, France's colonial ties to North Africa led to an increase in Muslim immigrants, and today, France has one of the largest Islamic populations in Europe. As the children of these immigrants grew up, they felt more comfortable than their parents displaying their beliefs and set off confrontations with teachers over the application of laïcité at school. After numerous protests by teachers, particularly about girls wearing headscarves, or hijabs, the Ministry of Education issued a directive in 1994 forbidding them in the classroom.

With the rise of militant Islam in the 1990s and 2000s, the French government went further. In 2004, it banned public-school students from wearing ostentatious religious symbols. The law, which won overwhelming political and public support, seemed clearly aimed at Muslims, and government officials acknowledged that by saying it was needed because Muslim girls were being forced to wear hijabs to prove their devotion.

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Seven years later, the government passed a law prohibiting veils in public places, and this year, to reinforce all of the laïcité measures, the Education Ministry drew up the Charter of Secularism at School and told every public school to put it in a prominent spot. In two years, students will have to take a course called "Moral and Civic Instruction," based on the charter. There have also been calls to extend the rules forbidding religious displays to universities and private workplaces.

Patrick Weil, a law professor who was part of a government commission that drafted the 2004 law, said the legislation is working and that devout Muslims have an option: They can send their children to private schools where the prohibitions don't apply. But he acknowledged that tensions exist.

"You have a reaction from both sides," he said. "You have people who are very anti-religious who think that it is unbearable to see a Muslim woman wearing the scarf in the street, and they would like to ban everything. And you have Muslims who say we would like more. But in the end, there's a sort of balance of rule."

That's not how people like Ndella Paye Diouf see things. A Muslim mother who lives in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, Ms. Diouf is adamant about the adverse impact of laïcité. "All the laws since 2004 are directed at Muslims," she said firmly.

Many Muslim girls in the neighbourhood have stopped going to school, she said, and others have gone to makeshift Muslim schools. Like many Muslim parents, she sends her children to one of the thousands of state-subsidized Catholic schools where the law doesn't apply and the irony is overwhelming. In these schools, devout Muslim girls wearing hijabs sit with Christian girls sporting crucifixes.

Ms. Diouf said she has also faced more discrimination since the various laïcité laws have been adopted, including being told recently to remove her headscarf when she sat in a café with some friends. According to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, the number of attacks against Muslim women has increased steadily since 2005. In 2012, there were 418 reports of violence against all Muslims, up from 262 in 2011. Of last year's victims, 353 were women. This summer saw days of rioting in Trappes, near Versailles, after a woman wearing a veil was stopped by police and her husband intervened. And in Argenteuil, more demonstrations broke out when a pregnant woman wearing a headscarf was attacked.

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"It's a very, very hot issue and that can be quite difficult to explain to people from other countries," said John Mullen, who teaches history at the University of Paris-East Créteil and has campaigned against the ban on headscarves. Mr. Mullen said the biggest proponents of laïcité in France are leftists, unlike many other countries where right-wing groups usually lead the charge against Muslim dress. He recalled joining a protest of Muslim women a few years ago and being confronted by other leftists.

The French government has condemned the discrimination and violence but insists laïcité isn't to blame. "Secularism is of course not about stigmatizing or attacking anyone. It is only about respecting the freedoms of all," said Nicolas Cadène, a senior member of the Observatory of Secularism that advises the Prime Minister on laïcité. "Muslims feel directly targeted because there have been laws over the last 10 years that are perceived to be anti-Islamic. They were exploited in debates to benefit certain political agendas. … Laïcité is above all about freedom."

Whatever the limits, applying laïcité has proven confounding as the government develops more rules and regulations. Last spring, a teenaged girl was sent home from school for wearing a headband – which the school confused with a headscarf – and a long skirt because it was deemed overly religious. Sikh boys at school have been allowed to wear a rumal, a type of head covering, but not a turban. A worker in a private daycare was fired for wearing a hijab, and when she sued, her case sparked a storm of controversy after France's highest court ruled in her favour, saying laïcité did not apply to a private workplace. Government officials have been scrambling to respond ever since.

And then there's Anissa Fathi. She is a devout Muslim and mother of three boys who lives in Montreuil. A couple of years ago, she volunteered to help out at her youngest son's primary school and offered to accompany the class on outings to the park or the library. The school refused, saying she could not be seen with the children in a hijab. "The teacher said they had to be neutral in the school and at all times in front of the children, even outside the school," Ms. Fathi recalled. She fought the decision for months but in the end switched her son to another public school nearby. That school welcomed her, and she has been a regular volunteer on dozens of school trips.

Ms. Fathi, who helped organize Mothers All Equal, which is fighting the headscarf and veil bans, said the inconsistent application of the law and the rising discrimination against Muslim women leave her frustrated and worried. She worries that the Muslim community is withdrawing and is especially fearful of the impact laïcité is having on young people.

"I'm scared for my children. I'm scared that when they grow up all of this will come out. The older [son] will remember that his mother was excluded because she was wearing a headscarf."

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