From the Newsdesk

France’s Ban on Muslim Robes: Secularism or Discrimination?

Female students in French public schools have been banned from wearing the abaya, a loose-fitting dress favored by certain Muslim women and seen by some as a sign of religious faith. The announcement, made by Education Minister Gabriel Attal just before the start of the new academic year, has sparked tensions across the political spectrum and raised questions about the government’s real priorities.
© Cinta Fosch

A debate on prohibiting the abaya, as well as the male equivalent, the qamis, in public schools has rumbled on for months since neither garment is considered specifically religious. Schoolgirls have long been banned from wearing the Muslim headscarf (le voile) on the grounds that it infringes the principle of secularism, which is fundamental to the French education system. The same rules, enshrined in a statute passed in 2004, apply to any “symbols or dress whereby students conspicuously display religious affiliation.” But the school-wide ban on religious symbols, including Christian crosses, stretches back to the 19th century, when it was introduced to preserve the secular nature of education. Since that time, the rules have been updated to cover other outward signs of religious belief, such as the Jewish skullcap.

Nevertheless, the number of rule infringements has been rising steadily. A total of 4,710 incidents were reported for the 2022-2023 academic year, compared with 2,167 in 2021-2022, according to an internal education-authority memo. Most of these reports involved garments, notably the abaya and the qamis, which, while not strictly religious, might be deemed to contravene the law. The previous education minister, Pap Ndiaye, whom Gabriel Attal replaces, had left it to school principals to decide for themselves whether the garments were religious symbols. That stance was deemed too moderate by some critics, who called for a firmer official response, while others argued that it placed an unfair burden of decision on individual teachers. Hence the announcement of a nationwide ban in all public schools.

The decision was controversial for several reasons. First, it was announced officially by Mr. Attal on a TV news program just a week before the beginning of the new school year, a method seen to be lacking in gravitas for such a formal ruling. More significantly, the ban has been interpreted as a maneuver to build bridges with the right- and far-right groups in the lower house of parliament, where President Macron’s party lacks an outright majority. But while some parliamentarians welcomed the decision, others, notably on the left, decried it as both unnecessary and discriminatory.

Ministers and senior government officials were quick to defend the administration’s position. Emmanuel Macron himself gave a much-commented interview on a YouTube channel popular with young audiences. Questioned about whether the abaya decision discriminated against a particular group, the president responded that a foundational principle was “under attack from a small minority who, by hijacking religion, [were] attacking the Republic and secularism.” In the most egregious case, he said, those behaviors led to the murder in 2020 of Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher beheaded by a young, radicalized Chechen refugee. “We have to be uncompromising, to explain, and to consult, but we mustn’t sweep things under the rug.”

For their part, the main organizations representing the Muslim community have pushed back against the government’s decision. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) has said that the abaya is not a Muslim religious symbol in itself. After the ban came into effect, another organization, Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM), went a step further and appealed to the Conseil d’Etat, the highest administrative authority in France. But the request was denied on the grounds that the ban was “not a serious and clearly illegal infringement of the right to privacy, freedom of religion, the right to education, respect for the best interests of the child, or the principle of non-discrimination.”

Early reports suggest that the ban has been broadly respected, especially since it affected only a few hundred schools, on a nationwide total of more than 59,000. However, some observers, notably the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, have suggested that Mr. Attal’s high-profile move was intended partly to distract attention from much deeper problems in the French education system, always a flashpoint of political tensions. These include teacher absences, confusion over changes to the baccalauréat, a lack of specialist teachers in subjects such as math, and, more worryingly, a lack of student motivation and social integration.

While the arguments over discrimination and unfair treatment are bound to continue, the abaya decision has once again raised the issue of school uniforms, which are not mandatory in France but are an unfailingly regular topic of discussion when the education system undergoes one of its frequent bouts of soul-searching about national identity.

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.