The headteacher of the Jules-Ferry de Bondy primary school in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, stunned parents recently with a strongly-worded letter, in which she declared she “will not accept” children abstaining from meat at lunch time “for religious reasons.”
“I remind you that, conforming to local regulations, and school rules, every child will be served meat. The children must eat their meat.
“If, for religious reasons, you don’t want your child to eat meat, I invite you to meet with me, because we will not accept that situation,” the headteacher said in her letter, which was published on Twitter by several parents.
Jews and Muslims are forbidden from eating pork under their religious dietary laws, but for the headteacher, France's tradition of secularism appears to have been more important.
“I remind you that your child is being educated in a school in the Republic, and that secularism – one of the foundations of the Republic – must be respected in its entirety,” she concluded.
The letter was shared online, however, and the headteacher received an angry backlash from internet users, including Radio Beur FM journalist Abdelkrine Branine, who was among many who labelled the incident an example of 'Islamophobia.'
Branine tweeted: "New secularism: Forcing Muslim children to eat meat in the canteen."
Another tweeter Fatima El-Ouasdi, in Paris, described herself as "shocked" by the school, which "under the pretense of secularism, forces children to eat meat in the cafeteria."
Assez choquée de cette école de Bondy (93) qui sous couvert d'une prétendue laïcité force des enfants à manger de la viande à la cantine...— Fatima El Ouasdi (@FatiElo) April 23, 2013
As a result of such criticisms, the headteacher was forced into an embarrassing climb down.
She sent an apologetic email to some parents, justifying the letter by saying she had become concerned that “[at lunchtime] some children leave the table without having eaten enough.”
“I offer my sincerest apologies to those whom I affected with my clumsiness, and my wrong interpretation of secularism…I am truly sorry,” she was quoted as saying in her email, by French daily Le Nouvel Observateur.
For her part, the Socialist mayor of Bondy, Sylvine Thomassin, criticized the headteacher’s strident letter as “a blunder,” and has offered to discuss French law with her, in order to give her “a more open and generous understanding of secularism,” according to French weekly L’Express.
Cafeteria lunches in public, state-run schools – which are governed by a strict separation of church and state – have long been a thorny issue in France.
In March, The Local reported how a state school in the Gironde region of south-western France caused outrage by announcing pupils would no longer be offered a high-protein meat substitute, in order to accommodate religious convictions about pork consumption.
Certain parents offered to cook meals for the children and bring them to school, but their offer was dismissed by the mayor of Arveyres, because it would be "logistically hard to implement and ethically shocking."