France Turns to Tough Policy on Students' Religious Garb - NY Times, USA
- France Turns to Tough Policy on Students' Religious
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: October 22, 2004
PARIS, Oct. 21 - To enforce its new law banning
religious symbols from public schools, the Ministry of
National Education has decided to get tough.
This week it held formal disciplinary hearings and
began expelling students who violated the law. The
goal was to get rid of those defined as hopeless cases
before the 10-day All Saints school vacation that ends
with a national holiday honoring all of Catholicism's
The French government sees no contradiction or irony
Nine female Muslim students who have refused to remove
their Islamic head coverings have been thrown out of
schools across France. After the All Saints break,
dozens of cases that are pending will be reviewed.
"The phase of dialogue and consultation is over," said
an official at the ministry, who refused to allow her
name to be used. "It was an unbearable situation for
the teachers and the pupils. It was a crazy situation.
The law has to be respected at some point."
Since school started a month ago, students who have
refused to remove what school administrators define as
conspicuous religious symbols have been quarantined in
study halls or libraries and not allowed to attend
The banned symbols include anything that can be
construed as an Islamic veil (head scarf, bandanna,
beret), a Jewish skullcap, a large Christian cross and
a Sikh turban.
Officially the law is aimed at enforcing France's
republican ideal of secularism. Unofficially it is
aimed at stopping female Muslim public school students
from swathing themselves in scarves or even long
There have been odd, unintended consequences.
Despite the 1905 law separating church and state in
France, public schools have been allowed to keep
chaplains, most of them Catechism-teaching and
Catholic, on their staffs as long as they were not
paid by the state. In 1960 a law set up a formal
process to create new chaplain posts and allowed
existing ones to continue.
But this fall some teachers at the Dumont d'Urville
high school in the southern city of Toulon objected to
what they said was a double standard: Muslim girls had
to doff their scarves, but the Rev. Antoine Galand,
the school's Catholic chaplain, could wear his
So Father Galand was barred from the school and may
return only if he removes his collar and cassock and
dons a business suit.
"We regret this interpretation of secularism, because
it's not what the law says," said the Rev. Charles
Mallard, the priest responsible for youth instruction
in the Catholic Diocese of Toulon. "But it's not worth
fighting over an article of clothing, knowing that in
Catholicism, 'the cowl doesn't make the monk.' "
He added that even in secular France it was considered
"normal" to have Catholic chaplains in public schools.
Cennet Doganay, a 15-year-old Muslim of Turkish origin
from Strasbourg, showed up on the first day of school
in a large beret. The school administrator told her
that the beret was a religious symbol, refused to
admit her to class and advised her to take a
correspondence course from home, Ms. Doganay said.
She refused. She asked her parents to help her shave
off her hair, returned to school in the beret and when
she was required to remove it, she revealed her bald
head in protest. Since there is nothing particularly
religious about baldness, she is going to school
"They drove me crazy and tried to brainwash me so much
that I got fed up and I did it - I shaved my hair
off," she said. "Now I feel alone; I feel like a
monster. It's like being naked on the street."
France's Sikh community, meanwhile, challenged the new
law in court after the Louise-Michel school in the
Parisian suburb of Bobigny barred three male Sikh
students from classes because they were wearing
The three boys were at first put into a separate room
where they could not attend class and then banished
from school without having the chance to defend their
case at a formal school hearing, Antoine Beauquier,
one of the boys' lawyers, said.
"For the moment we are in this no man's land of no
law," Mr. Beauquier said. "These three kids, who are
good students with no problems, have had no access to
classes. The effects are terrible."
Confusing matters, he added, some Sikh boys in other
schools have been allowed to attend school wearing a
hairnet or a small piece of fabric on their heads.
In a letter to President Jacques Chirac nearly a year
ago, the Sikh community argued that the turban should
be allowed because it is a cultural, not a religious,
Under the new law, expelled students have the right to
appeal to their local school boards. If they are under
16, the legal age for quitting school, they have a
stark choice: they must be schooled at home or by
correspondence or find a private school. France has
only one Muslim high school.
In an interview with France Inter radio on Tuesday,
Education Minister François Fillon said he was pleased
with the way things were going. He said that at the
start of the school year there were 600 cases of
students refusing to remove their religious symbols -
most of them Muslim girls in scarves - but that most
had agreed to do so after a "dialogue."
A number of opponents of the law criticize the
"dialogue" process as nothing more than pressure to
break the will of students. "It's a machine that
destroys the individual in the name of a
fundamentalist secularism," said Dr. Thomas Milcent, a
Strasbourg physician and convert to Islam who heads a
Muslim lobbying group. "Some girls have been treated
with cruelty, kept in isolation for days. This is
Hélène Fouquet and Ariane Bernard contributed
reporting for this article.
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