France decided on Monday to maintain a ban on Muslim headscarves for volunteer school monitors despite a warning that it overstepped the law requiring religious neutrality in the public service.
The Council of State, which advises the government on disputed administrative issues, said in a 32-page analysis that this neutrality did not apply to mothers who help escort schoolchildren on outings such as museum visits. Education Minister Vincent Peillon promptly announced the ban would continue because the Council’s opinion also said that schools could impose internal rules against religious wear. “The memo (establishing the ban) remains valid,” he said in a communique after the Council’s analysis was released.
France imposed the ban last year as one of several steps in recent years to tighten its policy of strict secularism. It banned headscarves for pupils in state schools 10 years ago and outlawed full-face Muslim veils in public in 2011. It has also considered extending this religious neutrality, which has long been the rule in public service, to some businesses such as private child daycare centres.
Muslim groups have denounced the increasingly strict limits on religious wear as discrimination against them. France’s five-million strong Muslim minority is the largest in Europe. France’s official secularism policy, the product of a long struggle against the powerful Roman Catholic Church that ended with the separation of church and state in 1905, remains a political minefield for governments and their critics.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault came under pressure from the conservative opposition and some fellow Socialists last week when a report posted on his website said France should reverse this policy and recognise its “Arab-Oriental dimension”. He denied that the report, part of a study on ways to fight discrimination, would become official policy.
France’s top administrative court will have to rule early next year on the appeal of a woman fired from her job at a private daycare centre because she began wearing the Muslim headscarf despite an internal dress code banning it.
The Council of State is the second advisory body to warn the government recently against overstepping the limits of the secularism policy. An “Observatory of Secularism” appointed by President Francois Hollande advised in October against a new law to extend the religious neutrality requirement to some private businesses, despite support for the idea from within his Socialist Party.
The Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France have organised an online petition calling on education minister Vincent Peillon to withdraw the ban on Muslim mothers wearing hijab from participating in school trips.