Every late afternoon - with the exception of weekends - observers in French cities are confronted with a somewhat strange picture. Young girls leave the school grounds at the end of the day and are the first to put their hidjab back on. This is because all forms of head coverings have been banned within school walls for 20 years now.
On 10 February 2004, the National Assembly approved the so-called law on religious signs in public schools (Loi sur les signes religieux dans les ecoles publiques) with a clear majority. Pupils were thus banned from wearing all clearly visible religious symbols in class from the new 2004/2005 school year.
Religious instruction will also be in vain
The basis for this is France's constitution. State and church have been strictly separated since 1905. Since then, the national education system - as its highest representatives in the "Grande Nation" rarely tire of emphasising with pride - has also been secular, i.e. strictly separated from religious influences. As a result, you will search in vain for religious instruction in the curriculum.
In 1905, the parliamentarians also stipulated equal treatment of all denominations - although there were practically no addressees other than the Catholic Church at the time. Almost 100 years later, with the law against religious signs, the idea seems to be repeated at first glance. However, the addition of the word "ostensiblement" - which translates as "clearly visible" or "demonstrative" - must be taken into account. While a cross can be concealed quite discreetly under clothing, this is not possible with a hidjab.
As a result, the law was quickly interpreted as anti-Muslim legislation - albeit vehemently disputed by officials. And recent developments seem to support this interpretation. For example, the government in Paris banned the wearing of abayas and quamis in the classroom at the start of the 2023 school year. The upper garments are particularly popular with men and women from the North African Maghreb states and the Middle East - in other words, from Islamic societies, which make up large minorities in France.
The then Minister of Education, Gabriel Attal, defended the ban on television at the time. He said it was intended to support teachers in enforcing secularism in the classroom. Because: "Secularism is not a restriction, it is a freedom," said Attal with the aforementioned national pride.
Criticism from Islamic associations
However, the interpretation of the decision is not as clear-cut as the minister has formulated it in reality. Opinions differ considerably as to whether the abaya and quamis are actually religious garments. From the point of view of the Islamic association Action droits des musulmans, it does not necessarily express a religious belief, but rather a "connection with a culture or region". The association argued that the decision was mainly aimed at "presumably Muslim children" and was discriminatory, especially for girls of Arab or African origin, and quickly lodged an appeal. However, this was rejected in court; the ban remains in force.
On the other hand, there are also profiteers of the ban, first and foremost the aforementioned Minister Attal. At the age of 34, Attal was the youngest education minister in the republic at the time, as well as being eloquent and charismatic, and recommended himself for higher tasks. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne at the beginning of January, President Emmanuel Macron appointed him as the new head of government - the youngest ever in office.
Attal also received another boost from the Elysee Palace when it came to religious dress. Macron has now spoken out in favour of introducing school uniforms by 2026. This would put discussions about hidjabves such as abayas off the table. Attal had also spoken out in favour of a test phase for school uniforms shortly after taking office as education minister.