Veil ban in French universities a ‘bad idea’


A proposal to ban the wearing of religious symbols at French universities, including Muslim headscarves, crucifixes and Jewish skullcaps, has been dismissed as a “bad idea” by university heads.


Two years after France’s controversial 2011 law banning the wearing of the full face-covering Islamic veil in public, the issue of the role of religion in the country’s proudly secular society is once again a major topic of debate.

This time, however, the battleground is the country’s universities, after a report seen by the French daily Le Monde on Monday recommended banning university students from wearing religious symbols such as crucifixes, Jewish skullcaps and Muslim headscarves.

A guide to the four main types of Muslim veil

The report, from France’s High Council for Integration (HCI), claimed that “growing tensions in all sectors of university life” were undermining the country’s secular values, leading it to call for a 2004 law banning school children from wearing religious symbols to be extended to universities.

‘Students are adults and you cannot limit their freedoms ‘

However, the HCI’s recommendations are likely to face opposition from France’s higher education institutions after being bluntly dismissed as a “bad idea” by the head of France’s Conference of University Presidents (CPU), Jean-Loup Salzmann.

“A university is not a school,” he said. “Students are adults and you cannot limit their freedoms. We think this is a subject that requires calm, discussion and certainly not an approach tinted with Islamophobia like that of the HCI.”

Furthermore, the HCI’s proposals are discriminatory against Muslims and illegal under French law, argues Abdallah Zekri, president of the Observatory against Islamophobia.

"Freedom of expression gives students - under Article 50 of the law of January 26 1984 - the right to express their religious beliefs within the universities, but not to exert pressure on other members of the community or to create disturbances,” he said.

Speaking to the AFP news agency, Salzmann denied that the CPU had ever asked for legislation against the wearing of headscarves in universities, “for the good reason that we are not in favour of such a law”.

“This is also what we said when we wrote to the HCI at the end of March,” he added.

‘Yes to secularism and yes to respect for beliefs’

The HCI’s director general Benoît Normand, meanwhile, said the organisation had not intended for the report to have been made public at this stage, telling AFP that it was due to be published in full at the end of the year.

The proposals are also likely to face significant political opposition, with even MPs on the right of French politics, many of who voted for the 2011 law banning full face veils in public, saying they are against a ban on headscarves at universities.

"Yes to secularism and yes to respect for beliefs," Hervé Mariton of the right-wing UMP party told the radio station France Inter.

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