Posted on April 4, 2024

Outcry in France as Principal Steps Down Over Head Scarf Incident

Aurelien Breeden, New York Times, March 28, 2024

A Paris school principal’s decision to step down after he received online death threats over an incident involving a Muslim student’s head scarf has prompted national outrage this week in France.

Camera crews have descended on the school and the government said it planned to sue the student, accusing her of making false accusations — the latest flashpoint in a debate over French secularism and the treatment of the country’s Muslim minority.

Officials say the incident occurred on Feb. 28 at the Lycée Maurice-Ravel when the school’s principal asked three students to remove their head scarves on school grounds. Two of the students complied, but a third refused, causing an “altercation,” according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

Since 2004, middle and high school students in France have been barred from wearing “ostentatious” symbols that have a clear religious meaning, like a Catholic cross, a Jewish skullcap or a Muslim head scarf.

The full details of the altercation are unclear. But the incident quickly drew national attention in France, where the perceived encroachment of Islam in the public school system is an extremely sensitive topic.

The country remains deeply scarred by the killing of two schoolteachers by Islamist extremists in recent years.

The student told investigators that the principal had pushed her and hit her arm, but the Paris prosecutor’s office said that a complaint she had filed accusing the principal of assault had been dropped over a lack of evidence. The principal filed a separate suit accusing the student of intimidating a public official, the prosecutor’s office said.

The government and politicians across the spectrum have defended the principal and disputed the accusations of violence made against him.

French officials have not publicly identified the principal or the student. The regional education authority for Paris said that the student dropped out of the school shortly after the incident.

The controversy began to draw greater national attention last week after the principal decided to step down. In a message to school staff that was shared with the French media, he said he had decided to leave over concerns about his personal safety and the school’s own security.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said that the threats against the principal were “unacceptable” and announced on Wednesday that the government would file a legal complaint against the student, accusing her of trying to “intimidate” the principal by making wrongful accusations of violence against him, leading to a wave of online death threats.

“Laïcité is constantly being put to the test,” Mr. Attal told a national television station on Wednesday about the case, referring to France’s version of secularism, which guarantees freedom of conscience but also the strict neutrality of the state and of some public spaces.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had opened an investigation into the death threats and “cyber-harassment” faced by the principal. Three people have already been arrested, and one of them will face trial next month, the prosecutor’s office said.

Mr. Attal, who met with the principal on Wednesday, said that the principal was scheduled to retire in June but had decided to step down earlier because of the threats. The prime minister added that the state would be unwavering in its support for “all of those who are on the front lines of these attacks on laïcité.”