Jane Marshall reports on a fiery impasse in France over headscarves
TEACHERS and parents kept their secondary school closed for a week in protest against an official order to readmit two Muslim schoolgirls who refused to remove their headscarves.
College Leo-Larguier, a lower secondary in La Grand-Combe, southern France, finally reopened on Tuesday for the first time since teachers went on strike on December 15.
Their action, supported by parents, was prompted by an order from the area's chief education officer that two pupils who insisted on wearing Islamic scarves, hijabs, at school must rejoin normal lessons after being excluded since October 1998.
During the 15 months, the girls, who are sisters, spent schooltime alone in a room, without being taught - a "temporary" solution after negotiations between teachers and the education authority.
The controversy over Muslim schoolgirls wearing hijabs arose in 1989 when a principal excluded three girls for doing so. According to the French constitution, state schools must be strictly secular and neutral in all areas - a stipulation overwhelmingly supported by teachers.
A circular was issued following the exclusions and a State Council ruling said the rights of pupils to display religious beliefs should be recognised as long as they were not ostenttious, did not proselytise, provoke or propagandise and did not interfere with others' freedom, or with the curriculum.
Most schools have managed to strike a balance, but matters became increasingly confused when local tribunals gave contradictory decisions following appeals by devout girls and their families against internal school regulations banning hijabs.
Eventually the State Council ruled that the scarves themselves should not be regarded as ostentatious, but that pupils might face exclusion if they refused to take part in lessons or games.
The case at Leo-Larguier, where half the 400 pupils are Muslim with roots in North Africa or Turkey, has added complications.
The two sisters are of French origin but have converted to a fundamentalist Islamic sect. Along with teachers and parents of the other pupils, clerics from the local mosque have criticised their behaviour, accepting that the school's secularity has helped keep relations good in the local multi-racial community. It is in an area where the racist Front National gained nearly a quarter of the votes at the last elections.
However, after the girls' mother started tribunal proceedings against infringement of their rights to education at the end of last year, the education authority issued the order to readmit them to classes.