Religious Demands Rise in French State Schools: Study

Tom Heneghan, Reuters, October 25, 2010

Muslim pupils and parents in France are increasingly making religious demands on the state school system that teachers should rebuff by explaining the country’s secular principles, according to an official report.

The High Council for Integration (HCI) reported growing problems with pupils of immigrant backgrounds who object to courses about the Holocaust, the Crusades or evolution, demand halal meals and “reject French culture and its values.”

“It is becoming difficult for teachers to resist religious pressures,” said the report, published in draft form by the newspaper Journal du Dimanche over the weekend. The final report will be presented to the government next month.

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France’s strict separation of church and state relegates religion to the private sphere, an approach challenged by a growing Islamic identity among some of the five million Muslims in the country’s 65 million population.

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REFUSING CLASSES, DEMANDING HALAL

Teachers often faced objections when they taught courses about world religions, the Holocaust or France’s war in Algeria, or discussed events related to Israel and the Palestinians or American military actions in Muslim countries, the study said.

“Teachers regularly find that Muslim parents refuse to have their children learn about Christianity,” it said. “Some think it amounts to evangelization.”

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Teachers found they could discuss the transatlantic slave trade but met criticism from pupils when they brought up the history of slavery within Africa or in the Middle East.

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In some areas with large immigrant populations, many pupils shun school cafeterias for religious reasons, even though most offer alternative dishes when pork is on the menu.

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The report stressed the state could allow alternatives to pork but could not allow halal or kosher meals because the price for ritually slaughtered meat included a tax paid to religious organizations that certify the food was properly prepared.

“The school cannot, in this sense, participate in the religious education of its pupils or conform to principles that it does not recognize,” the report said.

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PHILOSOPHICAL UPHEAVAL

During Ramadan, some Muslim pupils harass others who don’t observe the annual daytime fast, it said. Boys who identify themselves as Muslims and reject French values harass girls who do well in class as “collaborators” with the “dirty French.”

Some girls ask to be excused from gymnasium or pool sessions because they are not supposed to mix with boys, it added.

The report said French schools must insist on co-education, equal rights and mutual respect. “Being a French citizen means accepting challenges to one’s opinions . . . this is the price to pay for the freedom of opinion and expression.

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