Debate Over Secularism and Religious Signs at French Universities

Three Muslim Girls Photo: flickr.com/photos/diloz

Three Muslim Girls
Photo: flickr.com/photos/diloz

A report issued on August 6 by France’s High Council for Integration (HCI) has proposed the extension of the ban of religious dress and symbols in French university classrooms. The proposed law, which applies to all objects and activities of religious expression, specifically affects women of the Muslim faith wearing headscarves or hijabs. Continuing a trend by French government bodies to promote secularism in public institutions, the measure follows a similar act in 2004 that banned religious symbols, particularly Islamic veils, from public schools at the elementary and secondary level.

The Inspector General of Education, Alain Seksig, has voiced his wish to respect religious neutrality in places of higher education. In support of the proposal, HCI’s report invoked France’s Education Code, which provides that “the public service of higher education is secular and independent from any political, economic, religious, or ideological influence. ” When the rest of France’s public schools are already subject to the ban, the HCI sees no reason why higher education should maintain “a hypothetical status of extraterritoriality,” according to the French news source, Le Monde.

Largely based on a survey of the Conference of University Presidents in 2004, the report cites instances in universities where secularism has been damaged by religious teachings.  Examples include supporters of evangelical Christian principles who criticize Darwinian evolution in favor of creationist theories, or other cases where the writings of Voltaire, Pascal, or Camus are rejected.

According to interviews conducted in recent months by the mission on secularism, some universities are facing difficulties caused by higher education’s ambiguous position in relation to religious activities. The issues have ranged from challenges on educational content itself to compliance with dietary restrictions to the use of places of worship for community purposes.

While recognizing that “all institutions are not affected by these phenomena,” High Council for Integration claimed, “The law in March 2004 helped to reduce tensions in secondary schools” and expects it to serve the same purpose in universities.

The chief objections to the extension of this law come from women who wish to wear headscarves or hijabs in places of study. However, the law has the overwhelming support of the French public. Nearly eight in ten French people say they oppose the use of veils or headscarves in university classrooms, according to a poll taken by the French Institute for Public Opinion (Ifop). In a similar poll taken in October 2012, 89% of the public opposed the use of the veil in public schools, and 63% opposed the use of the veil on public streets.  “The university is located halfway between the school and the street,” said Jérôme Fourquet, Deputy Director of Public Opinion at Ifop, in a statement reported by Le Figaro.

These secularist recommendations will be published in the annual report of HCI in the fall, unless the Observatory of Secularism, to whom the report was submitted, wishes to make changes to them.  The president of the Observatory, Jean-Louis Bianco, has been lukewarm on the ban, declaring in June via Le Monde, “The law does not solve all the problems.” The question remains whether the left-aligned party of Francois Hollande, who established the Observatory of Secularism this past April, will take issue with the HCI’s recommendations.  Only 70% of Hollande’s supporters say they are opposed to the headscarf in university classrooms, in comparison to the 95% and 91% of FN and UMP supporters, both French political parties aligned with the far and center right.

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  1. […] report issued by France’s High Council for Integration (HCI) has proposed the extension of the ban of religious dress and symbols in French university classrooms. The proposed law, which applies to all objects and activities of religious expression, […]

  2. […] Nonetheless, if one could say that the past decade has had one single, positive consequence, it is the following: this fear and the constant questioning that came with it has made us acutely aware of the challenges of tolerance, of freedom, and of pluralism. Challenges that, unfortunately, my country is not ready to take up. A once-legitimate fear of Islamist extremism has now turned into a national mistrust of Muslims, and with them every Arab, turning our once exemplary model of secularism into a weapon against tolerance. It has now become possible for a socialist government to call for the banning of the Islamic veil in private stores and services opened to the public, after the previous right-wing government forbade it in the public space. At the very least, our present government has recently decided it not relevant to ban the veil in French universities. […]

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