A landmark court ruling this week is set to increase the pressure on French Muslims, potentially at the expense of the country's fraught race relations, experts fear.

Frenchwomen who wear headscarves out of faith could see their freedom to do so curtailed after a Paris appeals court's decision to uphold a nursery's right to dismiss a worker who insisted on wearing a hijab at work.

At the heart of the case was the question of whether France's strict ban on any overt religious symbols being displayed in state schools and other public institutions could be applied to what was a privately run nursery.

A lower court had said no in March but, after an outcry across the political spectrum, that ruling was overturned on Wednesday.

Although further legal wrangling is likely before the issue is definitively settled, the notion that private employers can tell employees how to dress on the basis of a principle of religious neutrality has been established for the time being.

"A line has been breached," said Franck Fregosi of the national research centre (CNRS). "Until now, the idea of religious neutrality was exclusively an issue for the public sector.

"The problem is that a number of recent developments, including this one, are perceived as being directed exclusively at Muslims, even if the current government actually targets Islam less (than its predecessor)."

Among those recent developments was the issuing in September of a "Charter for Secularity in School," designed to promote better understanding of the principle of the separation of church and state.

Dalil Boubakeur, the chairman of the French Muslim Council, said at the time that 90 percent of the estimated five million Muslims in France would see the charter as targeting them.

Similar concerns have been raised over a debate in some universities about whether Muslim women students should be allowed to wear headscarves to lectures and by a proposal for women who do child-minding at home to be questioned on their religious neutrality.

Not a month seems to go by without some new legal case in which the core issue is how to balance religious freedom with secularism.

Earlier this year a girl was excluded from her school after a headband and long skirt were deemed to constitute overtly religious garb. The exclusion was overturned on appeal and her parents are now suing the school for racial discrimination.

Last year, a local council was forced to rescind a decision to sack four holiday camp workers on the grounds that, by not eating in daylight during Ramadan, they endangered the children in their care.

This week has seen a debate flare over a ruling by an administrative tribunal in Grenoble that a local prison should be providing hallal food for Muslim prisoners.

According to Jean Bauberot, who lectures in religion and secularity, the ruling in the nursery case this week has established a dangerous legal precedent.

"In the name of secularism we have abandoned the rule of law and the reality is that this secularism serves to disguise some far less honorable things," Bauberot added.

"To take one example: there is now serious consideration being given to whether it would be possible to prevent mothers wearing headscarves from accompanying kids on school trips. How on earth can we help integration if we turn these women away?"

"In fact what we are doing is creating a new secularism that is harder on Islam than on other religions, whereas in theory, under the Constitution, all religions and races should be treated equally."

The notion of the "Ecole laique" (secular school) is one of the cornerstones of modern France. Outside minority faith communities, it enjoys strong support among the population.

But critics question the model's suitability for modern-day, multicultural France and accuse the government of double standards.

They ask if a truly secular school system would observe holidays on Christian Saints days and dish up fish in canteens every Friday, in keeping with Roman Catholic tradition.

The legislation has also affected France's 30,000 Sikhs, whose male children are required by their faith to cover their hair from an early age.

In practice, many primary schools allow younger Sikh boys to wear the Rumal, a handkerchief-type covering, but turbans are almost invariably banned -- a situation that forces families to choose between their faith, shelling out for private schools or taking their teenagers out of education early.

The nursery case is one that has been generating headlines since the worker involved Fatima Afif was first dismissed in 2008.

But according to journalist Claude Askolovitch, the author of a book on France's Muslim community, the dispute actually had its origins in a personality clash and should never have gained the test case prominence it did.

Instead, coverage of the case has become a way of stigmatizing the entire population, Askolovitch argues.

"The neighborhood became an 'Islamist' quarter where kids were shaken from their beds at prayer time, where you can't trust women to look after kids because when the call to prayer went out, they would drop their milk bottles and so on!"

Franck Fregosi says a similar indictment can be made of former president Nicolas Sarkozy's so-called burqa ban, the outlawing of full-face veils in public, which is currently being examined by the European Court of Human Rights.

"We have got to the stage of saying that these women have no personality, of denying their humanity. That is how you turn humans into animals -- they are excluded from the human race."

Bauberot adds: "The international situation, people's fears and a notion of France being in decline are all combining to create this pseudo battle between the Republic and Islam. It seems we have to find a scapegoat."

[Image: A Muslim girl wearing a hijab via Shutterstock]