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PARIS — With the ban on abayas in schools, French President Emmanuel Macron is killing two birds with one stone: He sends a signal to the right and divides the left.
But he also risks opening a Pandora’s box.
The decision to forbid the long, flowing robes worn by some Muslim women has ended a period of hesitation at the top levels of government over its approach to the sacrosanct principle of secularism in France.
The message sent out this week by Macron’s Cabinet was one of resolve and steadfastness. Freshly appointed Education Minister Gabriel Attal said that French schools “were being tested,” while Olivier Véran, the government spokesperson, described the wearing of abayas as “a political attack.”
Attal has argued the government is acting to stem a growing trend of students wearing Muslim dress in spite of a 2004 ban on religious symbols, including the Islamic hijab or headscarf, in public schools.
Bruno Jeanbart, vice president of the polling agency OpinionWay, described the topic as sensitive to legislate on. “What’s a religious sign and what’s just a dress code?” he said in summing up the core of the issue. The government’s new guidelines won’t stop the debate over what’s appropriate garb in schools, he believes.
“It’s only the beginning of the story. We’ll see cases where pupils are refused entry at schools,” Jeanbart said. “If they go to court and win, the question will be: Do we need a new law?”
Friends in right places
The government’s strong positioning on the tricky topic has been noted across the political spectrum — at a time when Macron is looking for new allies.
Although the French president has abandoned any intention of broadening his current coalition to other parties in the wake of his defeat in parliamentary elections last year, he still seeks support from right-wing conservatives as the government prepares sensitive legislation on topics such as immigration.
Those conservatives, who have called for the ban on religious symbols to be extended to universities, predictably hailed the decision. Even the far-right National Rally — which typically keeps it distance from the Macron administration — saluted the government’s move.
Tough-talking on secularism is likely intended to convey the signal that Macron’s liberal Renaissance party is capable of changing and making concessions on issues that are the mainstay of the right.
At the other side of the political spectrum, the decision has sparked indignation on the left, with far-left France Unbowed parliamentarian Clémentine Autain accusing the government of trying to “police” women’s clothing.
But not all French leftists reacted with disapproval, exposing internal divisions on secularism within the left-wing Nupes coalition. The socialists and communists have both welcomed the ban, in line with the parties’ secularist past and opposition to the influence of the Catholic Church.
On Wednesday, Macron is meeting opposition party leaders, except those from the far-right National Rally and the far-left France Unbowed, to discuss what he vaguely describes as a “broad political initiative” to find common political ground.
Tracking public opinion
Broad political support for the ban also reflects public opinion in France firmly on the side of keeping state schools secular. According to a recent IFOP poll, 77 percent of French people are “opposed” to religious signs in secondary schools, while just less than half the population say they are “very opposed” to it.
A 2004 law banning the Islamic headscarf in schools firmly established secularism in education, putting tensions around the topic to rest at the time. But these flared again after the beheading of a French teacher in 2020 amid a spate of terrorist attacks in France and neighboring countries.
Attal’s predecessor, former Education Minister Pap Ndiaye, failed to set out a clear position on secularism and declined to ban the abaya in schools, leaving this to the discretion of school principals.
Attal, appointed in July, is seeking to break from Ndiaye’s stance, according to Jeanbart. “Ministers are sensing more and more people are against abayas in schools, and they have to act, because if they don’t it’ll be another argument to vote [for far-right Marine] Le Pen,” he said.
Yet behind the signaling and the tough-talking, the government may be on shaky legal ground.
“It’s very risky to extend the definition of what is a religious sign, especially when those [who wear abayas] say it’s a cultural, not a religious, garment,” said Lauren Bakir, a Strasbourg University academic who specializes in law and secularism.
According to Bakir, the restriction of religious freedoms in the name of secularism have been founded on legal and constitutional grounds. “And as we further erode these freedoms, we are faced with decisions that are becoming more and more political,” she said.
The France Unbowed party has already announced it will challenge the government’s new rules in the courts.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX News and is published from a syndicated feed.)