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France: A “Secularism Charter” in Every School

by Soeren Kern

…In August, the High Council of Integration [HCI], a government-funded research institute, recommended that the wearing of religious symbols — such as crucifixes, Jewish skullcaps and Muslim headscarves — should be banned in French universities to ease the “escalating religious tensions in all areas of university life.”

In a 54-page report (PDF here), HCI says its research has shown that some universities have experienced problems from demands to be “excused from attendance for religious reasons… for separation of the sexes in lectures and seminars, instances of proselytizing, disagreements over the curriculum, and the wearing of religious clothes and symbols.”

A law passed in 2004 prohibits the wearing or open display of religious symbols in all French schools and colleges, but does not apply to universities.

In January, a 24-year-old Tunisian student at the University of Nantes in western France was asked by her professor to remove her hijab when she arrived for class. After she refused, the professor asked her to leave the lecture. The student went immediately to complain to officials in the Faculty of Sciences; the professor was forced to apologize to the student.

In July, hundreds of Muslims in Paris went on a rioting spree to protest the enforcement of the burqa ban after police checked the identity of a Muslim woman who was illegally wearing a full-face Islamic veil in public. A similar outbreak of unrest occurred in June, when police stopped a 25-year-old woman for wearing a veil in Argenteuil, a suburb 12 kilometers (8 miles) northwest of Paris.

In March, a school in the town of Arveyres in south-western France said it would no longer offer a meat alternative to students who do not eat pork. According to French television TF1, 28 of the 180 children attending the school used to be offered a substitute meat when pork was on the menu.

The mayor of Arveyres, Benoît Gheysens, said the move was taken because of the cost of providing alternative meals, many of which went to waste. “Often children who did not take the substitute dinner complained and did not eat the pork. It distressed the staff to see how much food was wasted,” Gheysens said. Muslim parents were enraged by the decision, and some responded by vandalizing Gheysens’ car and harassing him after hours at his home.

Also in March, an appeals court in Paris overturned the sacking of a nursery school teacher for refusing to take off her Muslim headscarf at work. The landmark ruling involved Fatima Afif, a nursery assistant who was fired in 2008 by Baby Loup, a privately-run daycare center in Yvelines, a suburb of Paris.

Baby Loup has rules requiring its staff to maintain “philosophical, political and denominational neutrality” at work. But the court ruled that because the nursery is a private establishment, and it was not an “urgent professional necessity” that Afif remove her veil, the French “principle of secularism does not apply.” According to the court, the principle cannot be invoked to deny “employees of private companies that do not perform a public service…the protections guaranteed them under the work code.”

According to Eric Rocheblave, an employment lawyer interviewed by the weekly magazine L’Express on March 19, “This ruling is unheard of. It is the first time that the Court de cassation [the highest appeals court in France] has made a judgment on wearing the veil in a company. Therefore, it is a major decision in the context of French legal precedent and jurisprudence. The decision means that now, an employer can only restrict an employee’s religious freedom if the practical functions of the job make it necessary.”

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls condemned the court’s decision, saying, “this puts secularism in France in doubt.” UMP Deputy Eric Ciotti told French Television TF1 that the court’s decision was “a severe blow against secularism” and a victory for “the claims of ethnic groups, to the detriment of republican values.”

The former head of the official Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission, Jeanette Bougrab, told Radio Europe 1 that “This is a dark day for secularism in France…It is like a feeling of mourning. My republic is dying.”

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