Muslim religious demands on French state schools rising: report
The sometimes difficult integration of Muslims is climbing the ladder of public concerns in Europe. It’s been hotly debated in Germany and figured in recent elections in the Netherlands and Austria. Now, a French government body called the High Council for Integration (HCI) has drawn up a critical report about the problems faced by — and posed by — school pupils with immigrant backgrounds. It’s not only about Muslim pupils, but they are mentioned so frequently that it’s clear who’s mostly involved here.
(Photo: Lycée Condorcet in Paris, 27 June 2009/Juan Antonio Cordero)
Among its findings, the report says Muslim pupils and parents in France are increasingly making religious demands on the state school system and that teachers should rebuff these demands by explaining the country’s principle of laïcité, the official separation of church and state. Among the problems it listed were pupils who upset classes by objecting to courses about the Holocaust, the Crusades or evolution, who demand halal meals and generally “reject French culture and its values.”
For more of its findings, read our news report on the study here.
“It is becoming difficult for teachers to resist religious pressures,” said the report, posted in draft form (here in French) on the website of the newspaper Journal du Dimanche (JDD), which published an article in its paper edition entitled “School threatened by communalism.” “We should now reaffirm secularism and train teachers how to deal with specific problems linked to the respect for this principle,” it said. The final report will be presented to the government next month.
France has been here before. There was a long and lively debate about religion in schools before the parliament banned Muslim headscarves and other religious garb in state schools in 2004. There were two large official reports — the so-called Stasi report and a parliamentary report — on laïcité in the schools that focused on an increase in religious demands in state schools.
(Photo: A school administrator bars a pupil wearing a headscarf from entering school in Villeneuve D’ascq, northern France, September 2, 2004/Pascal Rossignol)
There was also a critical book called “Les territoires perdus de la République” (The lost territories of the Republic) about rising anti-Semitism among Muslim pupils. After that, the issue was eclipsed by debates about full face veils and halal meat.
This study comes during the six-month period between France’s ban on full face veils and the imposition of that ban after a planned campaign to inform veiled women what awaits them once the prohibition is in full force. Patrick Gaubert, president of the HCI, told the JDD that his group would also soon put out “an assessment of our integration policy that will show our relative failure in this domain.”
Gaubert gave an interesting answer in the JDD interview to the question about what surprised him most during almost 200 sessions of hearings for the study. “The people we met were participants in the system,” he said. “We were surprised to see that they recounted their daily experiences to us quite well, but never communicated among themselves. I must say that that seems to be a mistake we can find on the level of the state. Administrations, sometimes even ministries, handle the same subjects but don’t talk to each other. That would at least create links among all these good intentions. The inter-ministerial council for integration, which has not met since 2006, should be reactivated.”
While it’s interesting that this report mentions all these problems, I’d really like to see some empirical data about how many pupils or how many schools are involved. I don’t doubt there are problems in the schools, but this vague way of talking about them means they can either be exaggerated or ignored, depending on how you want to spin the anecdotes that come out. And simply repeating earlier calls for more laïcité doesn’t sound like a fresh an innovative way to tackle a perceived failure of the system. If the problems are as serious as this report says, ignoring them will only make them worse. Debating them every five years or so and forgetting about them in between hardly seems a better a way to deal with them either.