Muslim and Jewish students in the small French town of Beaucaire will no longer be able to request pork-free school meals, according to a new rule passed by the town’s far-right mayor.
“My decision is so that the Republic wins, that in France the Republic has priority and not religion,” Sanchez said in an interview at Beaucaire’s town hall. “I defend the principles of France. If sharia law is installed in France tomorrow, then there’s no problem if it’s the law. For now, the Republic is secular, and I don’t know why pork should be a problem. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.”
For Muslim leaders, this is little more than a thinly veiled attack.
“I went to French public schools, and we never had this issue,” said Yasser Louati, a prominent French civil liberties advocate and Muslim community organizer. “This is nothing more than a dog whistle, of saying things without actually having to say them. We know which community is targeted.”
“I’m not stigmatizing anyone,” Sanchez said, rejecting allegations that requiring pork targets particular minority groups. “The people who don’t eat pork are welcome to come into the cafeteria. They just choose not to eat it.”
“This is a fake problem,” said Laure Cordelet, a local opposition leader in Beaucaire. “Frankly, if French identity is eating pork, we have a big problem.”
The mayor’s decision will probably affect about 150 of the 600 students enrolled in the district, she said. There is an important socioeconomic issue at play, she added: Many Muslim students are among the poorest in the local community, and requiring that pork be served means forcing them to forgo a “wholesome, balanced meal” one day a week.
“My issue is in fact that [Sanchez] seeks publicity for the National Front all throughout France, but does not think of the children here in Beaucaire,” said Anne Moiroud, head of the Beaucaire school district’s parents association.
“This has been going on for decades with hardly any difficulty,” said Ghislaine Hudson, a mediator for the Académie de Paris, the governing body for schools in the capital, and a former director of the Lycée Français in New York.
“Our objective as educators in the cafeterias is just to feed students, and for me it poses no problem when we serve alternatives to pork. And I believe the majority of teachers in most schools agree with that,” she said.
Academics and legal analysts also condemn what they see as a wrongheaded interpretation of France’s secular law.
“The Republic is not at all anti-religious. ‘Laïcité’ just means that the state is neutral, which is entirely different,” said Patrick Weil, a leading expert on the topic, which he explored in a 2015 book, “The Meaning of the Republic.” Laïcité is the French word for “secularism.”
“In schools, yes, the teaching should be free of religious influence, but in the way they eat, students have every right to eat according to any creed they may choose in school cafeterias,” he said. “The food served should recognize on some days the common ground, by serving vegetables, omelets, fruits — and some other days diversity by serving meats, fish and alternatives to them.”
Abdallah Zekri, head of France’s Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France (National Observatory Against Islamophobia), condemned what he called “an arbitrary and discriminatory decision”.
“It’s an unacceptable measure. We cannot accept that while some children are eating, others will just watch”, Zekri told Anadolu Agency by phone.
He pointed out that Sanchez’s decision is contrary to the principle of secularism, noting that secularism guarantees freedom of conscience and religion as a fundamental right for every citizen.
“He is using the respect of secularism as a pretext, but his action contradicts it. It is simply racism against Muslims. It is an anti-Muslim process,” he added, calling for the decision to be cancelled.