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PARIS — With the ban on abayas in schools, French President Emmanuel Macron is killing two birds with one stone: he is sending a signal to the right and dividing the left.
But it also risks opening Pandora’s box.
The decision to ban the long, flowing dresses worn by some Muslim women ended a period of hesitation at the highest levels of government over its approach to the sacrosanct principle of secularism in France.
The message sent this week by the Macron government was that of determination and firmness. New education minister Gabriel Attal said French schools were “being put to the test”, while government spokesman Olivier Véran called wearing the abaya an “attack policy “.
Attal argued that the government was acting to stem the growing trend of students wearing Muslim clothing, despite the 2004 ban on religious symbols, including the hijab or Islamic headscarf, in public schools.
Bruno Jeanbart, vice-president of the polling agency OpinionWay, qualified the subject as sensitive to legislate. “What is a religious sign and what is a simple dress code?” he said, summing up the heart of the matter. The government’s new guidelines will not stop the debate over appropriate dress at school, he believes.
“This is just the beginning of the story. We will see instances of students being denied entry to schools,” Jeanbart said. “If they go to court and win, the question will be: do we need a new law?
Friends in the right places
The government’s firm stance on this delicate subject has been noticed by the entire political spectrum, at a time when Macron is looking for new allies.
Although the French president abandoned any intention of expanding his current coalition to other parties after his defeat in the legislative elections last year, he still seeks the support of right-wing conservatives as the government prepares sensitive legislation on topics such as immigration.
Conservatives, who called for the ban on religious symbols to be extended to universities, predictably welcomed the move. Even the far-right National Rally – which generally stays away from the Macron administration – welcomed the government’s decision.
Harsh rhetoric about secularism is likely meant to send the signal that Macron’s liberal Renaissance party is capable of change and concessions on issues that are the mainstay of the right.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the decision sparked outrage on the left, with far-left parliamentarian France Insoumise Clémentine Autain accusing the government of trying to “monitor” women’s clothing.
But not all French leftists reacted with disapproval, exposing internal divisions over secularism within the left-wing Nupes coalition. Both socialists and communists welcomed the ban, in keeping with their secular pasts and their opposition to the influence of the Catholic Church.
On Wednesday, Macron will meet with the leaders of the opposition parties, except those of the far-right National Rally and the far-left France Insoumise, to discuss what he vaguely describes as a “vast political initiative aimed at finding common political ground.
Public opinion monitoring
The broad political support for the ban also reflects French public opinion strongly in favor of maintaining the secularism of public schools. According to a recent IFOP poll, 77% of French people are “opposed” to religious symbols in high schools, while just under half of the population declares itself “very opposed”.
A 2004 law banning the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in schools firmly established secularism in education, ending tensions around the subject at the time. But those tensions flared up again after the beheading of a French teacher in 2020, amid a wave of terror attacks in France and neighboring countries.
Attal’s predecessor, former education minister Pap Ndiaye, failed to articulate a clear stance on secularism and refused to ban the abaya in schools, leaving it up to principals of school.
Attal, appointed in July, is seeking to break away from Ndiaye’s position, according to Jeanbart. “Ministers feel that more and more people are against abayas in schools, and they must act, because if they don’t, it will be another argument to vote [for far-right Marine] Le Pen,” he said.
Yet behind these strong signals and rhetoric, the government may be on a fragile legal footing.
“It is very risky to extend the definition of what a religious sign is, especially when these [who wear abayas] “It’s cultural and not religious clothing,” said Lauren Bakir, an academic at the University of Strasbourg specializing in law and secularism.
According to Bakir, the restrictions of religious freedoms in the name of secularism have legal and constitutional bases. “And as we further erode those freedoms, we are faced with decisions that become increasingly political,” she said.
The La France Insoumise party has already announced that it will challenge the government’s new rules in court.