French minister warns of ‘militant secularity’

France's education minister on Monday warned against "militant secularity" in a country where a long-standing ban on veils, Jewish kippahs and other religious signs in schools continues to cause controversy.

French minister warns of 'militant secularity'
Muslim women protest about France's decision to ban the veil. Photo: AFP

“We have to be careful not to have a form of militant secularity in our country, which is counter-productive for children we would like to see adhere to secularity,” Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told reporters at a meeting of the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris.

France 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 law on secularity that banned students from wearing “conspicuous” signs of religion.

But a number of incidents since then have highlighted flaws in this law.

In April, for instance, the case of a Muslim girl who was twice banned from class for wearing a long, black skirt deemed a “conspicuous” sign of Islam caused nationwide outrage.

And several mothers who wear the veil have recently gone to court over a ban on them accompanying children on school trips.

“In recent years, we have reached levels of unwarranted tension, which go a long way in explaining the misunderstanding surrounding the notion of secularity, and the reason why some young people don't associate with it,” Vallaud-Belkacem said.

The 37-year-old rising star of the ruling Socialist party, who has come under fire in recent weeks for her set of school reforms, said she was opposed to an “ultra rigid position” that has seen veiled mothers systematically banned from school outings.

“As long as there is no proselytism… we must facilitate the partnership between parents and schools,” she said.

“How can a child adhere to school and the notion of secularity when they see their mother rejected from a school outing, stigmatised, left on the sidelines, just because she has a scarf on her head?”

She said secularity should not be imposed “as a strict rule” but brought alive for children and students so that they understand and adhere to it.

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Le Pen accused of ‘improper behaviour’ for refusing headscarf to meet Muslim leader

Far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen sparked controversy on Tuesday when she refused to wear a headscarf to meet with Lebanon's top Sunni Muslim cleric. Or was it all just a publicity stunt on both sides?

Le Pen accused of 'improper behaviour' for refusing headscarf to meet Muslim leader
Le Pen explains she won't be wearing the headscarf. Photo: AFP

When she arrived at Sheikh Abdellatif Deryan's office in Beirut, the National Front candidate was offered a shawl to cover her hair.

But she promptly refused, which prompted the Sunni authority to accuse her of “improper behaviour”.

Le Pen made a brief statement to journalists before leaving.

“I said yesterday that I would not veil myself. When they did not cancel the appointment I thought they would accept that I would not be wearing the veil.
“They tried to impose that on me, as though it was a fait accompli. Well, no one presents me with a fait accompli,” the candidate said.
There have been suggestions in the French media that the clash, seen in the video below, may have all been premeditated as a publicity stunt aimed at boosting Le Pen's appeal during the French presidential election campaign.

Deryan heads the Dar al-Fatwa organisation, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon.

In a statement on Tuesday, the body said “its press office had informed the presidential candidate, through one of her assistants, of the need to cover her head when she meets his eminence, according to the protocol assumed by Dar al-Fatwa”.

The body said it was surprised by Le Pen's refusal to conform to a known rule and regretted what it called “improper behaviour”.

However Florian Philipot, the National Front deputy leader, hailed Le Pen's stance as “a beautiful message of emancipation and freedom sent to the women of France and the world”.

Islamic dress is a hot-button issue in France, where the full-face veil is banned in public places.

The Islamic headscarf known as the Hijab is also banned in schools and public buildings, but Le Pen has said she wants to extend the ban to all public places.

Her stance however may open her up to accusations of hypocrisy as she regularly tells her supporters at rallies that foreign migrants in France should either adapt to French rules and culture or go home.

Should she have adapted to the cultural norms of where she was?

“On est chez nous, rentrez chez vous”, which roughly translates as “This is our home, so go home” is frequently chanted by her supporters at rallies, a chant that has Le Pen's support.

Tuesday is Le Pen's last day in Lebanon, where she met a foreign head of state for the first time — President Michel Aoun.

The FN leader, whose party takes an anti-immigrant stance, also met Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.

Shunned by European leaders over her party's stance on immigration and its anti-EU message, Le Pen's meeting with Aoun aimed to boost her international credibility.