Leaked French state documents report surge of ‘secularism violations’ in schools


French schools are struggling with an explosion of what are termed secularism violations, spurring controversy over the wearing of Islamic religious symbols and dress such as abayas and qami.

According to leaked state documents obtained by French newspaper Le Figaro, there are now escalating instances of breaches of such rules within educational institutions.

The abaya is a long, flowing Islamic dress favoured by many women, while the qami is its male equivalent.

The Le Figaro report also said there has been a rise in verbal confrontations between students and teachers, among other instances, regarding such violations.

Against the backdrop of a 2004 law that enforces secularism, defined as a principle of neutrality by the state toward matters involving religion in public life, and which bans religious dress in French schools, the academic year of 2022-2023 has witnessed a sharp spike in reported incidents of rule-breaking.

Between September and November 2021, the Ministry of National Education and Youth recorded a total of 91 incidents involving religious attire, constituting approximately 14 per cent of all rule violations during that time period.

Between April and July 2023, a surge was seen with 923 reported cases – accounting for 49 per cent of all violations during that period.

At least 150 educational institutions are grappling with this trend, with some witnessing more than 30 girls donning abayas on a daily basis. The “abaya debate” is not new, having first come to notice in June 2022 when French newspaper L’Opinion highlighted the rise of Islamic clothing being worn in schools.

Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to address the issue, it remained a largely untouched topic for months.

Change seems to be on the horizon; the newly appointed Minister of Education Gabriel Attal recently stated that “abayas are religious garments: they must be treated as such”. With the beginning of the academic year, Attal has pledged to provide detailed directives for addressing the matter.

The overall rise of violations of secularism in schools remains a broad concern. From 235 reported cases at the start of 2018, the figures have rocketed to 4,710 for the academic year 2022-2023.

Questions about secularism and religious dress have been a long-running controversy in France.

Debates over whether Islamic women should be allowed to wear headscarves, face veils and even the Islamic swimwear burkinis have raged for some years now.

France has long wrangled over the issue of secularism. In the 19th Century, for example, the role of the Catholic Church and the French state was a deeply divisive issue.

Today, France once again finds itself divided over the question of how to deal with its significant Muslim population.