Does a long black skirt really flout French laws?

Is a long, black skirt a "conspicuous" sign of Islam? Or is that pushing France's strict secularity laws a little too far?

Does a long black skirt really flout French laws?
Opponents of the ban on the Muslim schoolgirl's long skirt have pointed out that it seems acceptable for other French women to wear one.

The outrage over the case of a Muslim girl who was twice banned from class for wearing the offending piece of clothing highlights the headache teachers face in interpreting France's treasured ban on religion school, experts and officials say.

The country has a long-established secular tradition that has its roots in the anti-clericalism of the French revolution and a 1905 law enforcing a strict separation between church and state.

In 2004, spooked that the growing number of Muslim girls wearing headscarves in public schools was eroding this separation, the government brought in a controversial secularity law that banned students from wearing “conspicuous” signs of religion such as veils, Jewish skullcaps or crucifixes.

Difficult to interpret law

But the 15-year-old girl was stopped from going to class earlier this month for wearing a long skirt — popular among some Muslim women who cover their whole body — which the head teacher decided “conspicuously” showed her religious affiliation as part of a concerted, protest action.

Her story caused an outrage, fuelled by the fact that she always removed her veil before entering school premises in the northeastern town of Charleville-Mezieres, as is specifically stipulated by law.

On Twitter, the hashtag #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux, translated into English as “I wear my skirt as I please,” was trending on Tuesday.

“The girl was not excluded, she was asked to come back with a neutral outfit and it seems her father did not want the student to come back to school,” local education official Patrice Dutot told AFP on Tuesday.

According to the CCIF Islamophobia watchdog, some 130 students were kicked out of class last year for outfits deemed too openly religious.

Nicolas Cadene, the prime minister's special advisor on secularity, cautioned that this was a rare occurrence but said the move in Charleville-Mezieres was a “bad interpretation of the law.”

To make matters more complicated, a letter sent to all education personnel explaining how to apply the law allows for some exceptions, such as when a student attaches religious significance to an accessory or outfit he or she wears regularly.

As a result, as a local education authority near Charleville-Mezieres explained on Tuesday, “it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between simply wearing a conspicuous religious sign, provocation or temptation to test the limits of common rules.”

Cadene said that while the individual behaviour of students had to be taken into account to decide whether they were deliberately provoking authorities, it would be “counter-productive” to set up “clothing police.”

'Cat and mouse game'

Sociologist Jean Bauberot, who took part in a commission of experts debating secularity ahead of the 2004 law, said he and other members at the time had warned that any accessory or outfit could eventually be given religious significance.

“We risked entering a stupid cat and mouse game, constantly suspecting the students,” he said.

So they decided to make a list of conspicuous religious signs that was included in the letter sent to education personnel.

But he said the issue had become “an obsession” with some school authorities that risks encouraging teenagers “to revolt and spark the feeling that they are persecuted and victims of injustice.

“If we wanted young people to be attracted by extremism, we couldn't do better than this.

“And if we chase down young girls who have long skirts, their parents will put them in private school,” he added.

“We're turning our backs completely on the calling of state schools, which is to welcome a lot of children.”

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France sets up ‘office of laïcité’ to defend its secular ideals

The complex and frequently-misunderstood concept of laïcité - secularism - is set to be reinforced with the creation of a new office designed to oversee the application of one of the fundamental principles of the French republic.

France sets up 'office of laïcité' to defend its secular ideals
Photo: AFP

Prime minister Jean Castex announced on Thursday the creation of a new inter-ministerial committee on secularism which will eventually evolve into the bureau de la laïcité

Its role will be to provide extra training to state employees on exactly what laïcité is and what it does and does not allow, and to rule on disputes over the application of the principle of state secularism.

The creation of the office comes as a new bill aimed at ‘strengthening republican principles’ and cracking down on extremism makes its way through parliament.

READ ALSO What is actually contained in France’s new law against Islamic extremism

A key principle of the French state since its adoption in 1905, laïcité is poorly understood outside France, but the ideas of secularism are also often misunderstood – sometimes deliberately for political reasons – inside the country as well.

The basic principle of the law is that everyone in France is free to follow whatever religion they choose, but that the French state itself remains strictly neutral and religion plays no part in the business of the state.

This rules out, for example, Christmas nativity scenes in town halls or prayers in schools. It also means that agents of the state – anyone on the public payroll – cannot display any signs of their religion such as wearing the Muslim headscarf while at work, while religious symbols cannot be displayed in state buildings including schools.

It does not, however, extend to private businesses – so shops can and do put up Christmas decorations – or public spaces – so that wearing a Muslim scarf on the street or in a shop is perfectly legal.

Nevertheless, the lack of a simple, concise definition means that many people remain confused about the principle.

This is not helped by some deliberate distortions of the principle for political reasons, where it is particularly used to attack Muslim women.

READ ALSO What does laïcité really mean in France?