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News / Nation & World

France’s secularism approach faces struggles

By GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO, Associated Press
Published: May 25, 2024, 6:04am

MARSEILLE, France — Brought into the international spotlight by the ban on hijabs for French athletes at the upcoming Paris Olympics, France’s unique approach to “laïcité” — loosely translated as “secularism” — has been increasingly stirring controversy across the country.

The struggle cuts to the core of how France approaches not only the place of religion in public life, but also the integration of its mostly immigrant-origin Muslim population, Western Europe’s largest.

Perhaps the most contested ground is public schools, where visible signs of faith are barred under policies seeking to foster national unity. That includes the headscarves some Muslim women want to wear for piety and modesty, even as others fight them as a symbol of oppression.

“It has become a privilege to be allowed to practice our religion,” said Majda Ould Ibbat, who was considering leaving Marseille, France’s second-largest city, until she discovered a private Muslim school, Ibn Khaldoun, where her children could both freely live their faith and flourish academically.

“We wanted them to have a great education, and with our principles and our values,” added Ould Ibbat, who only started wearing a headscarf recently, while her teen daughter, Minane, hasn’t felt ready to.

For Minane, as for many French Muslim youth, navigating French culture and her spiritual identity is getting harder. The 19-year-old nursing student has heard people say even on the streets of multicultural Marseille that there’s no place for Muslims.

“I ask myself if Islam is accepted in France,” she said.

Minane also lives with the collective trauma that has scarred much of France in the aftermath of Islamist attacks, which have targeted schools and are seen by many as evidence that laïcité needs to be strictly enforced to prevent radicalization.

Minane vividly remembers observing a moment of silence at Ibn Khaldoun in honor of Samuel Paty, a public school teacher beheaded by a radicalized Islamist in 2020. A memorial to Paty as a defender of France’s values hangs in the entrance of the Education Ministry in Paris.

For its officials and most educators, secularism is essential. They say it encourages a sense of belonging to a united French identity and prevents those who are less or not religiously observant from feeling pressured.

For many French Muslims, however, laïcité is exerting precisely that kind of discriminatory pressure on already disadvantaged minorities.

Amid the tension, there’s broad agreement that polarization is skyrocketing, as crackdowns and challenges mount.

“Laws on laïcité protect and allow for coexistence — which is less and less easy,” said Isabelle Tretola, principal of the public primary school across from Ibn Khaldoun.

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She addresses challenges to secularism daily — like children in choir class who put their hands on their ears “because their families told them singing variety songs isn’t good.”

“You can’t force them to sing, but teachers tell them they can’t cover their ears out of respect for the instructor and classmates,” Tretola said. “In school, you come to learn the values of the republic.”

Secularism is a fundamental value in France’s constitution. The state explicitly charges public schools with instilling those values in children, while allowing private schools to offer religious instruction as long as they also teach the general curriculum that the government establishes.

Government officials argue the prohibition against showcasing a particular faith is necessary to avoid threats to democracy. The government has made fighting radical Islam a priority, and secularism is seen as a bulwark against the feared growth of religious influence on daily life.

For many educators, having strict government rules is helping confront multiplying challenges.

Some 40 percent of teachers report self-censoring on subjects from evolution to sexual health after the attacks on Paty and another teacher, Dominique Bernard, slain last fall by a suspected Islamic extremist, said Didier Georges of SNPDEN-UNSA, a union representing France’s principals.

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