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France unveils 'secular charter' for all schools

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Young Muslim women wearing headscarves march in Paris. Religious symbols are banned in French schools, part of a drive to protect secularism, or laïcité, in education. Photo: Philippe Desmazes/AFP
11:04 CEST+02:00
France's education minister finally unveiled his much-talked about "secularism charter" on Monday morning aimed at keeping religion out of schools. One of the rules of the charter forbids pupils from questioning teachers "in the name of their religious beliefs".

Education Minister Vincent Peillon says his new secular charter, which was revealed on Monday after 10am, is designed to promote "absolute respect for freedom of conscience". 

The document is to appear in a prominent place in every school, in the form of a poster and is remind teachers and pupils of a list of secular, Republican principles.

The charter, which contains 15 articles, was officially unveiled in a special ceremony at a Lycée in Ferté-sous-Jouarre in the Seine et Marne department, near Paris.

The document itself contains a number of broad, philosophical principles, that have already provoked a backlash.

Article 9 states: "Secularism implies the rejection of all violence and all discrimination, guarantees equality between girls and boys, and rests on a culture of respect and understanding of the other."

While the charter allows for pupils' free expression, article number 11 states that "Staff have a duty of strict neutrality. They must not show their political or religious convictions in the exercise of their duties."

Article 11 emphasises the famous French Enlightenment values of scientific inquiry, and appears to prevent any possible disputes over evolution or sex education. "Lessons are secular...No subject is a priori excluded from scientific and pedagogic questioning. No student can invoke their political or religious convictions, in order to dispute a teacher's right to address a question on the syllabus."

In practice that means teaching staff must never give any indication of their religious (or political) convictions during lessons and that pupils cannot use their faith as a reason to challenge the content of the national
curriculum, the manner of teaching or the rules of the school.

Of course, the charter affirms France's 2004 law, which banned the wearing of all "ostentatious religious symbols," and Article 13 appears to emphasise the point, perhaps as regards activities like sports and athletics.

"Nobody can avail of their religious affiliation in order to refuse to obey rules applicable in our schools."

charte_laicite

Speaking to the Journal du Dimanche  newspaper on Sunday, Peillon said: "The first article of our constitution states that the Republic is indivisible, democratic, social and secular."

“The school must teach these values, explain their meanings and their history. Because if we do not teach them, we should not be surprised if they were misunderstood or even ignored,” he said.

Previously Peillon said: “Everyone has a right to their opinions. But not to dispute lessons or miss classes [for religious reasons],” he added.

'Attack on Islam'

The minister has dismissed criticism from some quarters that the charter is just a veiled attack on Islam.

Abdallah Zekri, for example, president of the Observatory on Islamophobia told Le Parisien he felt "targeted" by the charter.

"This charter was supposedly made to combat communitarianism...But honestly, I feel targeted because now when anyone talks about 'communitarianism,' they're really talking about Muslims," he said.

Peillon, however, has said: “The vast majority of our Muslim compatriots are convinced of the benefits of secularism."

The project has provoked a mixed reaction in France, with some questioning the application of secular principles, and others claiming the measure doesn’t go far enough in enforcing France’s particularly strict church-state separation.

“The reality is that in the last few years, the Left has singularly lacked courage in the difficult struggle to defend secularism,” said Michèle Tabarot, a centre-right opposition UMP deputy.

“This decision is totally in keeping with the pussyfooting image of this government.”

Peillon’s predecessor as education minister, however, Luc Chatel from the opposition UMP party, expressed his tentative support for the charter.

“Any time we can give children a point of reference as to what the Republic is, and what our values are, that’s a good thing,” he told France Info radio on Monday.

Other critics wonder whether the model is suitable for modern-day, multicultural France and accuse the government of double standards.

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They question whether a truly secular school system would allow Christmas trees or December visits by Santa Claus, and whether it would still observe holidays on Christian Saints days.

While the vast majority of school canteens dish up fish every Friday - in keeping with Roman Catholic tradition - any principal who provides halal meat for Muslim students risks incurring the wrath of militant secularists, whose cause is enthusiastically backed by the far-right, anti-immigration Front National.

Interpreting the rules correctly has proved a headache for school leaders.

Earlier this year a Muslim 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.

The legislation has also caused much anguish among 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 have continued to allow younger Sikh boys to wear the Rumal, a handkerchief-type covering, but turbans are banned - a situation that effectively results in many Sikh teenagers giving up school earlier than they otherwise would.

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