Written by Yehia Murad and Kamye Boblet-Ledoyen
On September 7th 2023, the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest court of administrative law, affirmed the Ministry of National Education and Youth’s decision to prohibit the wearing of abayas and qamis apparel: “Pupils typically wear these garments in compliance with legislative provisions, with the accompanying dialogue often featuring a discourse on religious practice, influenced by arguments shared on social media platforms.” (Conseil d’Etat, 2023). For the highest administrative court of France, the wearing of abayas and qamis is considered to be in contradiction with the 2004 law that forbids ostentatious religious sign: “While students attending public schools are permitted to wear subtle religious symbols, it is prohibited to wear any clothing or signs that explicitly demonstrate a religious affiliation, such as a hijab, kippah, or oversized cross. Additionally, it is also prohibited to wear clothing or symbols that only demonstrate a religious affiliation on the basis of the student’s behaviour.” . The ruling of the Conseil d’Etat is legally valid; the rationale of the Ministry of Education, and the French government in general, behind this ban is more ambiguous.
The use of prominent religious symbols, especially those of the Muslim faith, has been the topic of intense political discussion since the late 1980s. The denial of class attendance to young veiled pupils by a school principal in 1989 sparked controversy among politicians in the country and beyond. This occurrence, which transpired in Creil, a middle-range town situated in the north-west suburbs of Paris, became known as the affaire de Creil (“Creil affair”). In 2010, the French government implemented a law prohibiting the wearing of burqas in public spaces such as schools, streets, and transportation. France has a lengthy history of anti-clericalism and secularism. The 1905 law establishing the separation of Church and State is viewed as an inventive compromise that assures both the liberty to worship and the non-interference of spiritual matters in temporal affairs. The politicisation of the abaya affair by politicians is lamentable, whereas the very idea of the 1905 law was to avoid any political controversy over religion. The exploitation of the principle of secularism via the prohibition of abayas and qamis is highly concerning. It is apparent that the French government, notably Education Minister Gabriel Attal, does not prioritise the promotion of secularism amongst younger generations.
This decision is merely political and not related to any supposed fight against Islamism. Gabriel Attal, the Education Minister appointed this summer, is primarily known for his political opportunism. Mr. Attal comes from the Parisian bourgeoisie, having been educated in one of the most prestigious private schools in the heart of the French capital, L’Alsacienne. He has been associated with both the Socialist Party and the conservative right in the past, but later became a staunch supporter of Emmanuel Macron. Despite having only completed an internship at Villa Médicis during his master’s degree, which he obtained after repeating a year with the help of a university arrangement, he managed to join the ministerial offices at a young age of 23. During his past positions as Minister Delegate for Youth, Government Spokesman, and Minister for the Budget and Public Accounts, Mr. Attal has proved to be a consistent advocate of Emmanuel Macron’s policies.
What is at Stake
The ban is closely linked to the decline of the national education system in the country. Although the inadequate state of schools in France is not unique, the exploitation of Republican principles, which underpin French citizenship, distinguishes the country as a particular case. Article 1 of the French Constitution stipulates that “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic”, setting the status of secularism as a supreme norm. Nevertheless, the far right has exploited this principle to promote their platforms that rely solely on emotional appeals, such as the fear of migration, the fear of Islam, and the fear of replacement. The rhetoric of being replaced, commonly found in European conservative and far-right parties, is fueled by a clear cause: decades of economic marginalisation resulting from neoliberalism. The National Education budget, which totals €59 billion in 2023 and accounts for the largest share of public spending, is inadequate. The salaries of French teachers are considerably lower than those in neighbouring countries, and the lack of support staff for students with disabilities, including carers, school nurses and doctors, presents a daily challenge for teaching staff. School performance is deemed deficient, as stated in the newest report (September 2023) published by the Scientific Council of National Education. It asserts that French proficiency has worsened while in mathematics, only half of the pupils are aware of the length of a quarter past three quarters of an hour. Consequently, discussing the abaya is diverting from the deep-seated issues that impede the national education system.
Yet, the French school required everything, except for another debate on the Islamic veil. As the topic is highly sensitive in France, a country that has suffered from numerous Islamist attacks since 2015. The killings of a history-geography teacher in 2020 and a literature teacher in October 2023 had a profound impact on public consciousness and caused trauma among the population. However, instead of implementing specific political measures, the French government capitalised on the emotions stirred by these attacks.
It is in fact in the preparatory work for the 1905 law on the separation of church and state that the proper measure is to be found: “Imposing the obligation on ministers of worship to modify the cut of their clothes, in light of a law aiming to establish a regime of religious freedom, would result in more than just problematic backlash… it risks exposing them not only to intolerance, but also to ridicule and potentially serious danger.” The state need not concern itself with the attire of its citizens; rather, it should strive to educate them and raise awareness of their rights. The Republican school’s responsibility is to use logical argument rather than emotional persuasion to advocate for the benefits of secularism. The legislators in 1905 were aware of the pitfall of banning a religious garment, which the French government ultimately fell into. They noted that “the combined ingenuity of priests and tailors would soon have created a new garment, which would no longer be the cassock, but would still be quite different from the jacket and the frock coat to allow the passer-by to distinguish at first glance a priest from any other citizen.” 
The French government is promoting the expansion of the Service National Universel (Universal National Service), a less intensive version of military service, as a means of toughening up its education policy, rather than facing up to reality. Following his re-election in May 2022, Emmanuel Macron expressed concern over his political legacy. For sure, he will leave this political legacy of the unprecedented extreme right-wing of society. Ultimately, if one imitates the far-right’s behaviour and rhetoric, one becomes aligned with far-right ideologies. It would have been worth it to beat Marine Le Pen twice…
The implementation of the banning of hijabs in the French education system is synonymous with right-wing politics, which explicitly rejects various forms of globalisation, particularly migration. Such an implementation of a policy that excludes a certain segment of civil society subverts the inclusive political institutions of the European Union, which need to maintain the virtuous circle of democracies [4; 5].
Such an issue lies in a discourse that leans heavily to the right, marginalising individuals based on their belief systems. As stated, it is important that the French state’s protect its continued vision of secularism and égalité (equality) and design the education system as an equal level playing field for its diverse civil society. The education system, as a key component in shaping the values of future generations, should prioritise fostering an environment of acceptance and understanding. Instead, this policy sends a distressing message, reinforcing polarising narratives and perpetuating stereotypes. It is imperative to recognize that a diverse and inclusive educational experience is not just a right but a cornerstone of a thriving democracy.
It is necessary for the EU to play a proactive role in scrutinising and repudiating member states that threaten such democratic and inclusive principles that they stand for. The EU should vocally condemn any action that leads to a democratic backslide within its borders. Free-speech should not be selective to benefit the popular segment of civil society, as the ban is not merely a dress code issue, but rather a threat to the core values of democracy and inclusive education. As advocates for human rights, it is our responsibility to shed light on these marginalising policies and call for a united stand against any measure that undermines the principles that cements a democratic society. We, Broken Chalk, advocate for equal opportunities in education for all minority ethnicities and commit to addressing the lack of inclusive institutions for all. We castigate the decision taken by the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest court of administrative law, and call for the necessary interventions by the appropriate bodies, such as the EU. Lastly, we urge the French courts to revise the decision taken by the Ministry of National Education and Youth and to find a common ground; between France’s universal values of secularism and the consideration of minority groups in the pursuit of education.
 Légifrance. 2004. “LOI n° 2004-228 du 15 mars 2004 encadrant, en application du principe de laïcité, le port de signes ou de tenues manifestant une appartenance religieuse dans les écoles, collèges et lycées publics (1).” Légifrance. https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/jorf/id/JORFTEXT000000417977.
 Branco, Juan. 2019. Crépuscule. 1st ed. Vauvert: Au diable vauvert.
Conseil d’Etat. 2023. “Base de jurisprudence.” Conseil d’Etat. https://www.conseil-etat.fr/fr/arianeweb/CE/decision/2023-09-07/487891.
 Aristide Briand. 1905. “Délibérations sur le projet et les propositions de loi concernant la séparation des Eglises et de l’Etat.” Les Classiques des sciences sociales. http://classiques.uqac.ca/collection_documents/assemblee_nationale/separation_Eglises_Etat/seance_43/debat_43_1905.pdf.
 Acemoglu, D. Robinson, J. A. (2012) Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Crown Business.
 Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. A. (2019). The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. Penguin Press.