Ten Muslim girls who refused to remove their headscarves or bandanas at school were excluded last week for breaking a controversial new law banning conspicuous religious signs in public establishments. Sixty further cases are pending.
The law forbids "the wearing of signs or clothing displaying a religious attachment" in public primary schools, lower secondaries and lycees, specifying "the Islamic veil, under whatever name might be used for it, the kippa or a cross of an obviously excessive size".
The legislation was introduced to provide clear rules following numerous cases dating back to the late 1980s of Muslim schoolgirls wearing headscarves to school, which the French say contravenes the constitutionally secular nature of its public education system.
Last Tuesday in Mulhouse, eastern France, two 12-year-old lower secondary schoolgirls of Algerian origin were the first pupils to be excluded under the law, which came into effect in September.
The next day two lycee students from the town followed suit. Four secondary pupils were excluded in Flers, in the north-west Orne department, one in Villeurbanne, near Lyon, and one in Macon.
More cases are scheduled after half-term for disciplinary committee rulings, and more than 60 pupils are in the early stages of the exclusion process. The schools in Mulhouse excluded the girls even though they had exchanged their headscarves a few days into the new term for more discreet bandanas, which remain a grey area under the law.
The father of two of the pupils, including one of those aged 12, said he would appeal to the education authority.
Education minister Francois Fillon said at the start of the new school year that bandanas would not necessarily be forbidden. He described three criteria for distinguishing between an ordinary bandana and one which could be regarded as a Muslim scarf: they had to be worn all day without interruption, every day, and totally cover the hair.
The girls have a limited number of choices if they want to continue their education after exclusion. Some pupils who were excluded last year for refusing to take off their scarves took correspondence courses, benefiting from entitlement to reduced enrolment fees and a few attended schools in Belgium, where headscarves are allowed.
Private schooling is not a realistic option: France has no state-recognised Muslim schools, and most Catholic schools also forbid pupils from wearing headscarves or other headgear, even though they are not covered by the new law.