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Secularism and religious symbols in State schools

The Law of 15 March 2004 (No. 2004-228) regulating, in application of the principle of laïcité, the wearing of signs or clothing which conspicuously manifest religious affiliations in public elementary, middle, and high schools.
For further information on the legal aspect of school and religion, see Legal status of religions > Specific stipulations > Education.

Background on the Law

The Law on "secularism" or the "headscarf law", which was voted by a massive majority, sparked massive public debate in France both before and after it was passed. This debate has revolved as much on the place of religion in the French State as on the place of Islam and the country’s Muslims in the French society. This Law is in fact the result of debates which started at the end of the 80’s (at the height of the Salman Rushdie affair), as well as several processes involving the French Government. It must be seen in the larger context of a changing society, including France’s changing perceptions of itself and of various issues.

The headscarf issue suddenly emerged into the public sphere during the 80’s with the increased use - or at least increased visibility - of different types of head coverings worn by young Muslim girls in public space.

In 1989, two young girls were expelled from a school in the French town of Creil. This affair not only provoked public debate in France, but also led to some political and legal actions. In particular, the State Council issued a confirmation that the situation was not consistent with the principle of secularism, but asked that such issues be handled on a case by case basis (when wearing a headscarf is not accompanied by "proselytising capable of disrupting the smooth flow of school activities", it can be deemed that this principle has not been violated). The confirmation was followed by a circular from the French Ministry of Education which provided for disciplinary action to be taken should these principles be breached.

In 1993, the new Minister François Bayrou took a different stance from his predecessor by issuing a Ministerial circular banning all religious symbols from schools. The numerous expulsions that followed this circular were however reversed by the State Council.

After these events, the French President set up an investigative committee known as the "Commission Stasi" in July 2003. It had the responsibility of preparing the basis of a law that would reinforce or reaffirm secularism in public schools. This Commission, composed of 20 persons from all walks of life, released a report on 11 December 2003, after having listened to the different actors and institutions involved. The report stated that wearing conspicuous religious symbols violated the secular principle of the French school system. Among these symbols were the headscarf, the Jewish kippa, the Sikh turban and large crucifixes for the Christians. The Commission recommended that discreet symbols of faith like the Star of David, the Hand of Fatima and small crosses be allowed.

In December 2003, President Jacques Chirac decided to use sections of the Stasi report in drafting a new law. This was done in February 2004 and on February 10, the National Assembly voted by a large majority (494 for, 36 against and 31 abstentions), the law on secularism and religious symbols in State schools.

Article 1 of the law states: "The wearing of symbols and apparel by which a student conspicuously expresses religious affiliation in public schools is prohibited. The rules of procedure provide for conciliatory dialogue before disciplinary action is taken against an offending student".

Applying the Law

The passing of this law was followed by extensive debate as to its interpretation and application. For several months afterwards, while proponents of a strict interpretation supported a total ban on all forms of headscarves, the young girls involved as well as some national Muslim leaders hoped to be allowed to wear a "bandana". When school resumed, several incidents occurred. The reactions of headscarf-wearing girls to the new law can be divided into four broad categories. The first group includes those who took off their head coverings on arriving at school. A second group involves those who did not turn up at all. Another group wore "light" coverings like a bandana and the last group kept their usual covering in the hope that they would be able to negotiate.

For this last group, the school authorities entered into dialogue with the young girls involved, a phase that lasted one to three weeks depending on the school. During this period, most of the young girls were allowed into school. However, they could not enter the classrooms and were sometimes not even allowed to access the playground. At the end of this "dialogue" phase which involved the school authorities and the young girl, as well as the child’s parents, and sometimes external mediators, the student was required by law to take a decision before any disciplinary action was taken. The conciliatory process appeared to have paid off as several young Muslim girls agreed to remove their headscarves at the end of this period. On their part, some of the schools often agreed to admit the girls into school with their headscarves which they could then remove in a secluded area, usually the toilets. The same procedure is repeated at the end of the day.
It is difficult to give estimates as it pertains to the application of the law since the numbers vary according to associations, education authorities and schools. Also, the figures are incomplete as it is currently impossible to count the young girls who "voluntarily" stayed away from school (whether they stayed at home and followed classes on a distance education platform or started attending school in neighbouring countries like Belgium and Germany, or were simply sent back to their home countries (Turkey in particular)).
According to non-official figures, of the 12 million students in public schools, only 240 arrived in school with their headscarves at the 2004 new school year. 170 agreed immediately to take off their scarves and 70 conciliatory procedures were instituted. According to the then Education Minister François Fillon, 48 students were expelled at the end of the first term.
Figures made available to Cecile Boutelet by the "Comité 15 mars et Liberté" (an organisation created with a view of defending the rights of scarf-wearing young girls) are a bit more detailed but must be taken with circumspection. The following data is given for the 2004/2005 school year and covers the entire country. These figures are however vague and inexact.

Muslim girls expelled after conciliatory procedure 47
Sikhs boys expelled after conciliatory procedure 3
Muslims girls who agreed to take off their scarves 533
Muslim girls who left school and did not return at the new school year ?
Muslim girls attending school abroad (estimation) 67
Muslim girls attending private schools 3
Muslim girls who opted for distance learning (CNED 26
Muslim girls in public schools using "light" covering 12

The particular case of Alsace

Alsace is one of the regions of France where opposition to the new law was at its highest. This region has a certain number of particularities, which include a specific status for religions, a high concentration of Muslims and a large Turkish population. Organised action against the law was most visible in this region. According to Cecile Boutelet, four kinds of strategies were employed:
 a community-type mobilisation where Muslims came together to defend what they considered to be one of the tenets of Islam.
 a rather intellectual type of mobilisation that witnessed the emergence – outside of the traditional structures - of female Muslim intellectuals. These women give the impression of being free of community control, as well as that of their male relatives.
 a joint mobilisation where non-Muslim human rights organisations (often left-wing and sometimes atheist) joined with Muslim groups to defend individual freedoms
 personal initiatives that were sometimes covered in the media

For further information on the ban of headscarves in public schools, see : a reference list.

For more details on the different protests against the headscarf law, see Cécile Boutelet’s dissertation entitled "La cause des filles voilées à Strasbourg", IEP, Strasbourg, June 2005.

D 24 September 2012    ASamim Akgönül

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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