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PARIS — They arrived as they do every December: gaily wrapped gifts destined for children at a kindergarten in rural northern France.
But this year, teachers unwrapped a few, took a look and sent all 1,300 packages back to City Hall. The presents were innocent, but strictly speaking, illegal: seasonal chocolates shaped like Christian crosses and St. Nicholas.
As Christmas approaches, France is awakening to the realization that a new law banning conspicuous religious symbols at schools — a measure used mainly to keep Muslim girls from wearing traditional Islamic head scarves to class — can cut both ways.
The law, which took effect in September, bans overt symbols such as Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses at public schools.
More than a dozen teenage Muslim girls have been expelled from high schools for refusing to remove their scarves, along with three Sikh boys kicked out of a Paris-area school for wearing turbans.
But last week’s dispute over the chocolates was the first time the law — France’s response to what many perceive as a rise in Muslim fundamentalism — has been used to challenge Christian imagery.
As officials police schools to keep overt religious symbols from undermining the nation’s cherished secularism, political leaders are locked in a fierce debate over whether to modify the 1905 law that enshrined the separation of church and state in France.
Nicolas Sarkozy, a former finance minister who heads President Jacques Chirac’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement party and is considering a run for the presidency in 2007, is leading a drive to amend the law and allow state subsidies for religious groups.
Sarkozy wants to give France’s 5 million Muslims, who form Western Europe’s largest Islamic community, the means to build mosques. He believes that bringing Islam out into the open would help Muslims integrate into French society and discourage extremism from flourishing among believers now meeting underground.
(Posted on December 14, 2004)