French EU treaty foes turn to hot issue - religion

Paris, France - In the heat of France's debate over the European Constitution, the "no" camp occasionally uses a classic hot-button issue -- religion's role in politics -- to help bolster its campaign against the treaty.

Leading opponents of the text argue it could break down the separation of church and state here, undermining the right to abortion and allowing Muslim headscarves back into state schools after they and other religious symbols were banned last year.

Anti-treaty activists, who enjoy a slight lead in opinion polls as next Sunday's referendum on the issue nears, mostly base their campaign on warnings the constitution will threaten the French job market and undermine France's public sector.

But they add the faith factor, a contentious issue in a society where the secular tradition runs strong, in appeals aimed mostly at left-wingers leaning towards the "no" vote.

Henri Emmanuelli, campaigning against the treaty despite his Socialist Party's support for it, opted for a sudden warning about abortion after an uphill battle debating economic issues on television with pro-treaty conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

Saying he was "alerting the women of this country," he said a clause respecting the right to life could allow conservatives and churches to seek a court reversal of abortion here.

"This is the phrase anti-abortion movements in the United States use to justify their opposition to abortion," he said on France 2 TV amid protests from Sarkozy that he was exaggerating.

Georges Sarre, head of a small Eurosceptic Citizen's Movement party, said the fact the constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and did not mention the word "secularism" meant the text could be used to undermine French laws.

"The law banning headscarves will be overturned by some European jurisdiction," he warned in a statement.

Other treaty opponents have warned Muslim civil servants could soon be rolling out their prayer rugs in post offices or railway ticket booths if the constitution passed.


The constitution's defenders dismiss these arguments out of hand, saying they show no understanding of how Europe works.

Simone Veil, who championed the legalisation of abortion as a centrist health minister in the 1970s, said member states retained power over such issues and noted the European Human Rights Convention also mentioned the right to life.

"I was shocked by this argument that abortion could be put in doubt," she told LCI television. "It's a deliberate lie."

Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who chaired the convention that drafted the constitution, said national laws would also prevent Brussels from overturning the headscarf ban.

France passed a landmark law separating church and state 100 years ago at the height of a long political struggle against the influential Roman Catholic Church.

Passions cooled over the years, but the law remained an accepted pillar of political life here.

The country's growing Muslim population has challenged this in recent years, demanding that headscarves or prayer rooms be allowed.

This has turned the defence of secularism into a rallying point for left-wing voters, especially state school teachers.

Pollsters say while larger economic issues in the constitution debate overshadow religious angles, faith and voting patterns seem linked among the Catholic majority.

The IFOP polling institute said traditional support for European integration had not faded among church-going Catholics even though other voter groups had turned sceptical since the Maastricht Treaty passed by a whisker in a 1992 referendum.

"A drop in support stands out among non-practicing Catholics and is clearest among people without any religion, which underlines the shift of a large part of the left-wing electorate into the 'no' camp," it said.