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UN committee slams France over school rule on Muslim headscarf

France violated an international rights treaty when it banned a woman from wearing a headscarf while she studied at a school, a UN committee has ruled.

UN committee slams France over school rule on Muslim headscarf
Illustration photo by PHILIPPE MERLE / AFP

The move broke the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee said.

Its decision follows a complaint filed in 2016 by a French national born in 1977, whose lawyer does not wish her name to be published.

The woman was on a professional training course for adults in 2010, and had passed an interview and entrance test.

But the headmaster of Langevin Wallon high school in the southeastern suburbs of Paris refused to let her enter because of a ban on wearing religious symbols in public educational establishments.

The UN committee said “prohibiting her from participating in her continuing education course while wearing a headscarf constitutes a restriction on her freedom of religion in violation of the treaty”.

The committee’s decision was adopted in March but sent to the woman’s lawyer on Wednesday.

“This is an important decision which shows that France has work to do in terms of human rights and in particular on the issue of respect for religious minorities, and more particularly the Muslim community,” her lawyer Sefen Guez Guez told AFP.

EXPLAINED What does laïcté really mean in France

The issue of religious symbols and clothing is an ongoing one in France, where laÏcité (secularism) rules mean that all overt religious symbols – including the Muslim headscarf – are banned for staff and pupils in public buildings including government offices and schools.

The most recent flare-up over laïcité rules involved local authorities in Grenoble, who had voted to allow the full-body swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’ in municipal swimming pools. Their decision was contested by the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, who referred the decision to the administrative court, which blocked the Grenoble authority’s decision.

The burka and niquab are banned outright in France, while the Muslim headscarf can be worn in all public places apart from government-run buildings. Public officials who represent the state – such as police officers – are also banned from wearing it while at work. 

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CRIME

11 French bishops accused of sexual violence, announces church group

Eleven former or serving French bishops have been accused of sexual violence, including the former bishop of Bordeaux who has confessed to assaulting a minor 35 years ago, a senior church body announced on Monday.

11 French bishops accused of sexual violence, announces church group

Jean-Pierre Ricard, a long-standing bishop of Bordeaux who was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016, has admitted to a “reprehensible” act on a 14-year-old, the president of the Bishops’ Conference of France, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, told reporters.

All of the accused will face either prosecution or church disciplinary procedures, added de Moulins-Beaufort, the archbishop of north-eastern Reims.

French bishops are meeting in Lourdes in southwestern France for their autumn conference where they plan to discuss ways to improve their communication and transparency regarding historic sex crime allegations against the clergy.

The church was rocked last year by the findings of an inquiry that confirmed widespread abuse of minors by priests, deacons and lay members of the Church dating from the 1950s.

It found that 216,000 minors had been abused by clergy over the past seven decades, a number that climbed to 330,000 when claims against lay members of the Church are included, such as teachers at Catholic schools.

The commission that produced the report denounced the “systemic character” of efforts to shield clergy from prosecution, and urged the Church to pay compensation to victims.

Ricard retired as bishop of Bordeaux in 2019 but he remains a cardinal, a position usually held for life.

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