Religion - Teachers in France are reminded of their unholy orders

6th September 2013 at 01:00
All schools will have to display a `secularism charter'

The separation of church and state is a cornerstone of the French constitution, and its supporters believe it is essential for freedom and equality. But in recent years, French secularism, or lacit, has come under increasing pressure as the government strives to accommodate the needs of different religious groups.

Now, however, the state is hitting back: ministers announced in August that by the end of this month every school will be forced to prominently display a "secularism charter".

The document, resembling one that has been in use in hospitals for several years, will outline the principles of the republic and the rights and obligations of the school and its students. Further details will be revealed in the next few weeks.

The move goes hand in hand with plans to introduce compulsory lessons in "secular morality and citizenship" for all students aged 5-18 from 2015. Schools will be encouraged to hold debates about issues on which religions take varied stances, such as homosexuality.

State schools in France are already strictly secular, with students and staff banned from wearing conspicuous religious symbols or clothing under a law that came into force in 2004. But Vincent Peillon, the country's education minister, is spearheading a further secularist drive. "Everyone has a right to their opinions but not to dispute lessons or miss classes (for religious reasons)," Mr Peillon told French journalists last week.

The minister added that the point of the exercise was not to turn secularism into "an obsession with Islam". "The vast majority of our Muslim compatriots are convinced of the benefits of secularism," he said.

The charter has had a mixed reception in France, with some critics saying that it does not go far enough.

Sebastien Sihr, general secretary of the SNUipp teaching union, told La Croix Catholic newspaper that the charter will be of use only if teachers are supported in its implementation. "At the moment, teacher training courses hardly give any importance to questions of secularism," he said.

But Celine Rigo, national secretary for international relations at the SE- Unsa teaching union, told TES that the charter would generally be welcomed by the profession. "To some extent it is a political gesture, rather like hanging the flag outside schools on national holidays, but there is a willingness to reaffirm secularism, as it has been brought into question recently," she said.

Ms Rigo added that the union understands that the new classes in secular morality will resemble existing citizenship lessons, but will be held regularly in every school.

"The minister wants to create a sense of commonality, the same school for everyone," Ms Rigo said. "It's about bringing people together despite their differences."

School leaders have highlighted that secularist principles can come under pressure for a variety of reasons - from Muslim schoolchildren wanting to wear more modest outfits for physical education to the sensitivity required when teaching about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The attempts by Mr Peillon to reassert French secularism come after a report by the High Council of Integration, leaked this summer, recommended that Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols be banned from universities, as they are in schools. It cited problems caused by university students wearing religious clothes and demanding spaces for prayer and special menus.

Earlier this year, a university lecturer was forced to apologise after ejecting a Muslim student from one of his classes for wearing the hijab. The academic, who had previously worked in secondary schools, had forgotten that the ban on headscarves did not apply in universities.

Another controversial law - the so-called "burka ban", which prevents Muslim women from wearing the niqab (full-face veil) in most public places - has been in force since 2011.

There have also been rows over schools refusing to provide "alternative meats" for Muslims and Jews when pork is on the menu, and some institutions have upset parents by refusing to allow mothers wearing headscarves to help out on school trips.

Secular declaration

Key points from the draft charter:

  • Secularism at school helps students to develop their personality, exercise their free will and learn how to be citizens.
  • Staff must convey the ideas behind secularism to students.
  • Staff must ensure that students' parents know about the charter.
  • Staff must not show their political or religious beliefs at work.
  • No student may cite religious or political convictions to avoid participating in any part of the curriculum.
  • It is forbidden in schools to wear symbols or clothes that show affiliation to a religion.

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