Efforts by education minister Francois Bayrou to resolve the long-running dispute over Muslim girls wearing hidjabs (headscarves) at school have provoked confrontation, which last week led to the exclusion of 22 pupils.
Seventeen of the girls were pupils at a lycee in Lille, while the other five attended schools in the department of Hauts-de-Seine. Two of them are daughters of the imam of Nanterre, a sensitive Muslim area.
All the excluded pupils had flouted school rules based on guidance issued by the education minister at the beginning of term (TES, September 23) forbidding the wearing of "ostentatious" religious signs. France's constitution strictly separates church from state, and religion is excluded from all public institutions, including schools.
But the minister's attempts to clarify the rules have not solved the problem, with schools in various parts of France in the first half of this term becoming involved in the conflict.
Three hundred demonstrators marched in support of 24 girls threatened with exclusion in Mantes-la-Jolie, in the Yvelines; and a defence committee was set up for pupils refused entry to their lycee in Goussainville, Val-d'Oise.
However, the anti-racist group, SOS-Racisme, has changed its policy on the wearing of hidjabs, and has called for a law forbidding all religious signs at school, including crucifixes and skull-caps.
When the issue first blew up in 1989, the group called for tolerance, claiming a ban on the scarves would drive Muslim girls into narrow sectarianism. But now it says circumstances have changed, and that girls are often pressurised into wearing the hidjab against their will, and that acceptance of religious signs at school could one day threaten the secularity of education.