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Secularists raise doubts as priest eyes top job at French university

© AFP archive | Students in a lecture hall at Strasbourg University

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-12-13

The expected appointment of a Catholic priest as president of the University of Strasbourg in eastern France has upset secular sensibilities in a country where separation of Church and state institutions is strictly observed.

Theology professor Michel Deneken, ordained in the 1980s and a parish priest from 1985 to 2000, is the leading candidate for the position, which is due to be announced late on Tuesday following a vote by faculty leaders. Deneken, a former vice president at the university, is currently serving as interim president.

The appointment risks upsetting supporters of France’s strict secularism laws, which bar religious clothing and symbols, from crucifixes to Jewish skullcaps and Muslim headscarves, in public institutions.

“We are extremely concerned about the candidacy of a theologian and priest to the head of the University of Strasbourg,” the SNESUP higher education union said in a statement on Friday, which was the 111th anniversary of France’s famous 1905 law that completely separates Church and state.

“This goes completely against the French Republican principle that public services should be completely neutral,” he added

Strasbourg’s unique status

Strasbourg, a part of Alsace, has a special exemption from the 1905 law. The region of eastern France, along with neighbouring Lorraine, was ceded to Germany at the end of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. They remained part of Germany until the end of the First World War, and were returned to France under the terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty. The region was therefore not part of France when the 1905 law was passed, and has never been fully subject to it.

Appointing Deneken, 60, to the university’s presidency does not go against this law. Even in the rest of France, it is not legal to deny an ordained priest a public position “if that is the only argument against the appointment”.

Bad faith

“Just because it isn’t illegal, doesn’t mean that it is desirable,” SNESUP spokesman Pascal Maillard told left-leaning French daily Le Monde on Tuesday.

The UNEF national student’s union is also against Deneken becoming university president: “The appointment of someone who owes allegiance to both the state and the Vatican will not be good for the image of the university.”

The voices of opposition to Deneker’s appointment seem to support the candidacy of his rival for the top job at the university, political science professor Hélène Michel.

Professor Michel insisted that while she had nothing against Deneker personally, she was only raising doubts “that have been the subject of public debate about the university’s policies”.

“Even if Michel Deneken is no longer a parish priest, one is still a priest for life, and subject to the authority of the Church” she told Le Monde. “Fears about the reputation of the university, and the direction of research conducted here, are perfectly legitimate.”

‘Never seen a problem’

Deneken himself is adamant that his status as an ordained priest should not be used as a reason to bar his appointment.

“I’ve been vice president of the university for eight years, and interim president since September,” he told reporters. “Each individual has his own beliefs and convictions, and universities are places where matters of faith should never interfere with teaching or research, and should always respect the laws of the Republic and the ethics of education.”

He has the support of Pierre Litzler, head of the university’s arts faculty, who admitted that the appointment of a priest as president “could seem a little bit strange” but insisted that until the issue erupted, he had “no idea” Deneken was an ordained priest.

“To be a leader of a university, you have to leave your ideological convictions at home, which is something Michel Deneken has always done,” he said.

The local AFGES students union also supports Deneken, insisting that his religious status had “never been a problem, and we don’t see how it could be”.

Date created : 2016-12-13


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