On the 15th of May, the French Senate examined a proposal for a new law – named the Blanquer law, in reference to the minister of Education—anchored in a vast project of reforming the French school system. The professed objective of such a law, originally proposed by the government of President Macron, is to (re)create a « school of trust ». However, in a reversal of circumstances due to the French legislative system, many amendments have been suggested and added by the members of the opposition. One amendment, which proposed to ban veiled mothers from joining their kids on school trips, made newspapers headlines. By coincidence, this event appeared in the middle of Ramadan month, and perpetuates a climate of hesitation, or even perhaps hostility, towards religion and more precisely Islam in France.
Juridical and political landscapes: what does such a law tell us about the French situation?
Registered in the French legislative game, the Blanquer’s law and its amendments, proposed by the Right Party Les Républicains, had first been refused by the National Assembly. In a constant back and forth, it was then submitted to the Senate, which approved it (186 voted yes, 100 voted no, 159 abstaining). A conclusive vote will be held in the National Assembly to see if deputies want to maintain senators’ modifications.
Strictly speaking the text aims to forbid the “conspicuous religious symbols” by parents who would like to join their children on school trips. It is a very abstract term, as according to the French secularism principle, the state is not legitimated to mention just one religion. However, in the communication they have done in upstream and downstream of the vote, the deputies in charge of the project clearly targeted Muslim mothers wearing headscarves. To justify such an initiative, they evoked the necessity to fulfil a “juridical vacuum”. Conversely, the majority mentioned previous initiatives. Without taking sides on political issues, one can remark that the debate is a recurring issue in France and occurred in a political and legal landscape already complex.
Firstly, the 1905 “law of separation of Churches and State” is considered as the major law of secularism. It endorses the neutrality of public and national services and workers. A law of 2004 forbids ostensible religious symbols at school such as the veil or kippah. At that time, such law has explicitly been voted in response to the use of headscarves by some young schoolgirls. Secondly, a ministerial circular of 2012, from the former Minister of Education Luc Chatel, preconized the neutrality of parents who took part in schools trips or activities. However, such a circular has no juridical force and was time limited: it is only recommendations and does not constitute an obligation. Nevertheless, the “circular Chatel” is often quoted as a mandatory source. In 2010, the full-face veil has been prohibited, and six years later, in 2016, the burkini (a modesty swimsuit) controversy occurred (after further judicial decisions, the burkini has finally been considered to conform to the secularism principle).
To briefly sum-up the French juridical spectrum, one could say that the integral veil or burqa (which cover the face) are forbidden in France, while the hijab is legally authorized, as it does not cover the face. As such, in 2014 in Nice, a veiled mother decided to go to the court because she has been refused for a school trip due to her veil. She obtained a favourable decision from the administrative tribunal one year later.
In response to the vote, the minister of Education, Jean Michel Blanquer declared, with a certain ambiguity, that he would prefer not to see too much « conspicuous religious symbols » at school in practice, but he also mentioned that an amendment was not required, as the French Council of State already ruled on the topic. So, he now appears reluctant to defend his own law proposal.
Local insights and reactions: from the misunderstanding of Muslim citizens to ironic stance of school practitioners:
The daily French newspaper, Le Parisien, illustrated the frustration and the misunderstanding of Muslim citizens, more precisely with those whom locally elected politicians have been in favour of the amendment. As such, the senator from Aulnay (the Parisian suburb) Annie Delmont, voted “yes” for the law and set reactions among her electorate: the article quoted one of them that we might translate as saying “they want our voices, but they do not want to see us”. The senator justified her choice by saying she did it in the name of “mutual and political solidarity ” and that she was, personally, much more “nuanced” about the question of the veil.
In Le Monde, a practitioner (a school director) signed an article to explain his point of view on the project of law and the secularism principle. He clearly explained that the law was discriminant as the mothers should remove their headscarf or renounce to accompany their children. For him, such initiative runs the risk of accentuating the lack of tolerance among children and to marginalize those whose mothers would not be accepted at school anymore. He underlined that one major explanation of children’s success at school is the capacity to include their parents in their educational path. By doing so, he defended his vision of school as a space of neutrality and impartiality but also as a place of tolerance where differences have to be debated and discussed not rejected.
As one can see, the question of the veil is a recurring debate for French society, especially for politicians. Despite the traditional separation between the executive and religions, the repetition of the interrogations towards Islam symbolizes a broadening in the conception of the “laicity”. Once again, religious issues, particularly regarding Islam, do not seem to be relevant to structure the French political scene anymore, towards the classic division between right and left. The majority is officially against it, but appears fragmented on religious questions.