All pupils in French state schools will be reminded this week that they are not allowed to wear items of religious clothing such as headscarves or crucifixes, nor object to the school curriculum on religious grounds, in a 15-point written statement to be displayed on school walls.
Some critics have denounced the charte de laicité or “secularism charter” as a thinly veiled attack on Islam. Others complain that it is an inadequate response to the growing influence of intolerant strains of Islam in the multiracial suburbs of French cities.
The Education Minister, Vincent Peillon, says the charter, which contains no new rules, is simply a restatement of the principle of “secularity”, or separation between church and state, established in France 108 years ago.
The charter tells pupils they cannot object to parts of the state curriculum – such as the teaching of evolution or the Holocaust – on religious or political grounds. It reminds teachers that they are not allowed to bring their own religious or political beliefs into the classroom.
Another article recalls that since 2004 it has been illegal to wear religious clothes or symbols in state schools. Several articles make the case for “secularity” as a protection rather than a threat – a guarantee of the rights and equality of all religions and not an attack on the principle of faith itself.
Article 4 says: “Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience for all. Everyone is free to believe or not to believe.”
Most moderate Islamic groups have accepted the charter. Others see a hidden agenda. Abdallah Zekri, president of the Observatory on Islamophobia, said: “This charter was supposedly made to combat sectarianism. But honestly, I feel targeted because now when anyone talks about ‘sectarianism’, they’re really talking about Muslims.”
Mr Peillon, who announced the charter last December, insists it is not anti-Islam. “Secularity should not be reduced to an obsession with Islam,” he said. “The vast majority of our Muslim citizens are convinced of the advantages of a secular state.”
Nonetheless, the charter arises partly from a rash of incidents in which Muslim pupils have objected, on religious grounds, to science teaching on evolution or to history classes on the Holocaust or the Israel-Palestine dispute. The charter says students have a right to make their opinions known but they cannot refuse to study the state curriculum.
Article 15 says: “No pupil can invoke a religious or political conviction to challenge a teacher’s right to cover parts of the programme.”
The charter has also been criticised by some teachers. Christophe Varagnac, a history teacher in Bordeaux, who has written about violence in schools, said: “[Muslim] pupils can see perfectly well that Catholicism is more favoured than other religions in France. If you argue for secularity in those circumstances, you are inevitably suspected of propaganda.”
Philippe Tournier, of the headteachers’ union, the SNPDEN, said: “Who can be against such a charter? No one. But if you really want to fight against the growing sectarianism found in some schools… you have to reform the school catchment areas which reinforce community and ethnic boundaries.”
Other teachers complain that a red, white and blue poster on the school wall is not enough. Mr Peillon agrees. “A pedagogical kit” is to be sent to teachers to help them to explain the charter to pupils.
From 2015, the minister plans to impose classes in “secular morality” at all levels of education from three to 18. After an outcry from religious groups – Catholic as well as Muslim – the classes will be renamed “moral and civic instruction”. Mr Peillon said: “Schools must teach these values, explain their meaning, remember their history. If we do not teach them, do not be surprised if they were misunderstood or even ignored.”
Zeroual, a 14-year-old Muslim student interviewed by the newspaper Le Parisien on Monday, seemed already to have learned his lesson by heart.
“Luckily, we have secularism to help everyone to agree,” he said. “Without it, in the classroom, the Christians would be on the backs of the Muslims and the Muslims on the backs of the Jews.”
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