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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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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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