As reported through a newsletter from the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, the end of summer vacation in France, known as the “rentrée,” often brings renewed social tensions. This year has followed that pattern, as the calm of summer gave way to another dispute over a recurring national issue: how Muslim women should dress.
In late August, with France still, on break, Gabriel Attal, the 34-year-old newly appointed education minister and a favourite of President Emmanuel Macron, announced that “the abaya can no longer be worn in schools”, reports Roger Cohen in the New York Times
His abrupt order, applying to public middle and high schools, banned the loose-fitting full-length robe worn by some Muslim students. It ignited another debate over French identity.
The government believes education should eliminate ethnic or religious differences in service of a shared commitment to the rights and responsibilities of French citizenship. As Mr. Attal put it, “You should not be able to distinguish or identify the students’ religion by looking at them.”
Protests on the ban of the abaya
Since the announcement, Muslim organizations representing the approximately 5 million Muslim minority have protested. Some girls have worn kimonos or other long garments to school to show the ban seems arbitrary. A heated debate erupted over whether Mr. Attal’s August surprise, right before the school year, was a political stunt or a necessary defence of France’s secular ideals.
“Attal wanted to appear tough for political gain, but this was cheap courage,” said Nicolas Cadène, co-founder of an organization monitoring secularism in France. “Real courage would be addressing segregated schooling that leads to separate ethnic and religious identities.”
The issue of religious symbols in schools is not new. France banned “ostentatious” ones in 2004, leaving room for interpretation.
The question has been whether the law equally targeted Muslim headscarves, Catholic crosses and Jewish kippas, or mainly focused on Islam. The abaya, reflecting Muslim identity but potentially just modest attire, was a grey area until Mr. Attal’s statement.
In practice, “ostentatious” has often meant Muslim. France’s concern over secularism fractures, heightened by devastating Islamist attacks, has centred on Muslims shunning “Frenchness” for religious identity and extremism.
The niqab, veil, burkini, abaya and even headscarves on school trips have received unusual scrutiny in France compared to Europe and especially the United States, which emphasizes religious freedom over French freedom from religion.
In recent years, strict secularism, intended in 1905 to remove the Catholic Church from public life, hardened from a widely accepted model permitting religious freedom into an unbending contested doctrine embraced by the right and broader society as a defence against threats ranging from Islamic extremism to American multiculturalism.
“This should have been done in 2004, and would have been if we did not have gutless leaders,” said Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigration leader, of Mr Attal’s move. “As General MacArthur observed, lost battles can be summed up in two words: too late.”
The question is: too late for what? Banning abayas in schools as Mr. Attal demands? Or stopping the spread of disadvantaged schools in troubled suburbs where opportunities for Muslim immigrant children suffer and radicalization risks grow?
This is where France splits, with over 80 percent approving the ban but critical for the country’s future.
Some see secularism as enabling equal opportunity, while others view it as hypocrisy masking prejudice, as illustrated by those suburbs.
The teacher Samuel Paty’s 2020 beheading by an extremist still provokes fury. Yet the riots after a police shooting of a teen of Algerian and Moroccan descent showed resentment over perceived Muslim risk.
“The French government invokes 1905 and 2004 laws to ‘protect Republican values’ from a teenage dress, revealing its weakness in enabling peaceful coexistence beyond differences,” wrote sociologist Agnès de Féo in Le Monde.
Éric Ciotti of the centre-right Republicans retorted that “communautarisme” or prioritizing religious/ethnic identity over national identity “threatens the Republic.” Mr. Attal, he said, responded appropriately.
The Republicans matter because Mr. Macron lacks a parliamentary majority, making them a likely legislative ally.
Mr. Attal’s move has clear political aims. Mr Macron governs from the centre but leans right.
Mr Attal replaced Pap Ndiaye, the first Black education minister, in July after rightist attacks forced him out, with thinly veiled racism in the vitriol.
He was accused of importing America’s “diversity doctrine” and “reducing everything to skin colour,” as the far-right Valeurs Actuelles put it.
Before his ouster, Mr Ndiaye rejected a sweeping abaya ban, saying principals should decide case-by-case.
Sheik Sidibe, a 21-year-old Black teaching assistant outside a Paris high school, said his former principal mistreated Muslim students with arbitrary dress checks.
“We should focus on real problems, like teachers’ poor salaries,” said Mr. Sidibe, a Muslim. “Marginalized students in precarious situations need help, not policing clothes.”
The political impact remains unclear. But the measure appears more divisive than unifying despite secularism’s aim.
“Secularism must enable liberty and equality regardless of belief,” said Mr. Cadène. “It must not become a weapon to silence people. That will not make it attractive.”