Can you vote in France while wearing a kippah?
That was the debate that erupted among officials at the polling station on Sunday when Rabbi Avraham Weill, the Chief Rabbi of Toulouse, a city in southern France, went to vote in the municipal elections. He was initially turned away on account of his offensive attire — specifically, his skullcap.
The kippah, Weill was told, was a “religious symbol” and as such violated “the neutrality of the office,” according to a report by France 3. The voting booth was in a public school.
The official who was bothered by Weill’s kippah was a delegate of the French Communist Party (PCF). Other delegates at the polling stations soon intervened, and Weill was eventually allowed to cast his vote — though the PCF delegate insisted that the incident be formally documented.
Weill has since filed a complaint for “discrimination” for having been “humiliated” in front of his 4-year-old son. According to a 2007 official document by the French Interior Ministry, “no legal regulations may limit voters’ freedom of dress.”
The PCF issued a clarification that their delegate’s actions were, rather than a manifestation of bigotry or hatred, simply “a bad interpretation of the law.” There has been no explanation as to why, for the sake of consistency, the delegate did not also demand that Weill shave his beard.
The official with a sensitivity to kippahs, it so happens, is a public school teacher.
France has a strong culture of laïcité, secularism, which is enshrined in law. A controversial 2004 law bans wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Though the law theoretically covers all religious symbols, it is considered by some to target the hijabs of France’s growing Muslim population.
Just three days before the kippah fiasco, March 19, was the anniversary of the 2012 massacre at the Toulouse Jewish day school, in which Mohammed Merah, a French citizen, killed 3 young children and a rabbi because they were Jewish.
To mark the date, the French politicians — including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose conservative party came out on top in Sunday’s round of voting — held a ceremony in which representatives of various faiths signed a “Charter of Secularism” to promote tolerance among the religious branches.
Rabbi Weill noted wryly that nobody at that ceremony asked him to remove his kippah.