WHEN a Paris radio talk show recently asked its listeners, ``Should we fear the Islamic veil?,'' 77 percent of respondents said ``yes.'' While that figure certainly is no scientific gauge of French public opinion, it illustrates the extent to which veils, mosques, and other symbols of the Islamic faith have become topics of emotionally charged debate across France.
The growth of a population that publicly proclaims its religious faith is a deep source of worry for many French. Religious practice is minimal in France, and history has created a fervor of almost religious intensity for the notion of secularity.
The most recent controversy centers on the right of Islamic girls to wear their veils in the public schools. After three Muslim adolescents were sent home for wearing scarves to class in the Paris suburb of Creil, similar expulsions took place in other French cities. A small group of demonstrators, chanting ``My chador is my protection,'' filed through the streets of a largely Arab neighborhood in Paris.
Virtually every French politician and religious leader has commented on the issue. Speaking before the National Assembly (the lower house of Parliament) last Wednesday, Education Minister Lionel Jospin said that if ``dialogue with the parents and children concerned fails to persuade them to give up these demonstrations,'' the veils should be accepted. ``Schools are not made to exclude but to welcome.''
Alain Goldmann, chief rabbi of Paris, said that it is no longer the religious but secularists ``who are showing their intolerance.... Confronting little French children with `difference' is an excellent pedagogical technique. They learn to know and respect others.''
On the other hand, former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua says ``no'' to the Islamic veil. ``It is a mark of difference, and within the secular school that is not acceptable.'' And former French president Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing, noting that France ``decided a century ago that schools would remain outside religious debates,'' nevertheless called for a national debate on ``the French identity.''
Earlier this fall, Lyon's mayor allowed construction of a mosque in a middle-class neighborhood of his city. His decision made headlines. So did the ``accidental'' bulldozing of a mosque in a village in southeast France during the summer. And before that there were demonstrations in the streets of Paris in protest of Salman Rushdie's book ``The Satanic Verses.''
In each case, the controversy has raised to a higher decibel level the national alarm over immigration of Muslims to France and their integration into French society. More than 3 million Muslims live in France, and their expression of religious faith is becoming more open and bold.
While taking steps to restrict immigration of workers (most of whom are from former French colonies in Muslim North Africa), France's Socialist government has preferred to address questions involving immigrants on a case-by-case basis or to leave decisions to local authorities.
The problem with that approach, some National Assembly members say, is that it leaves the broad immigration question in the hands of the far-right National Front (FN), which keeps a high profile largely by virtue of this one issue. The FN, which gained exposure support over its opposition to Lyon's proposed mosque, plans to blanket that city with 150,000 brochures calling for a referendum on the project.
Warning of a ``physical and psychological taking of French soil'' in the construction of mosques, Jean-Yves Gaillou, a Paris regional leader of FN, said in a recent opinion piece in Le Monde that ``to imagine that pacific coexistence between Christians and Muslims, which has not been lastingly possible anywhere in the world, will be possible on the banks of the Seine or the Rh^one is an illusion, a utopia.''
As for Muslim girls wearing scarves in class, the FN says such acts pose ``a threat to our national identity.'' A more-tempered response to the issue is confused, largely because of a debate that the veils have roused over secularity in the public schools.
Historical roots of that debate press deep into the antichurch fervor of the French Revolution, but are concentrated in secular Roman Catholic battles of the last century. Only in 1905 did France fully separate its institutions, including schools, from the Catholic Church, and it is that bitterly won principle of separation that many political and education leaders now say is threatened.
If preserving school secularity is the principal goal, some observers say, the only answer to the Islamic veil controversy is for religiously practicing Muslims to attend schools that teach the Koran.
But that is a poor alternative, says Daniel Youssouf Leclercq, past president of the National Federation of Muslims of France.
``The schools represent the best chance for integration of the Muslim population into French society,'' he says. ``For Muslim girls especially ... public schools are in some cases the only way that an otherwise narrow horizon might be expanded.''
The moderate Mr. Leclercq, a Frenchman who converted to Islam, says perhaps 10 percent of Islamic families are fervent practitioners, while the great majority ``have adapted their level of faith to life in a non-Islamic country.''
The girls who were expelled from the Creil schools had worn their veils to school for several years without incident, he says.
``What is new is not that these girls are following what for them is a law,'' he says, ``but that others are suddenly determined to deny them a fundamental right. Whom does the veil hurt?''