School meals in France become battlegrounds in the conflict over the place of Islam in society

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BÉZIERS, France — Riyad El Baroudi, 10, faces a dilemma every time it’s time to sit down for lunch in his elementary school cafeteria.

Her father forbids her to eat pork in accordance with Islamic laws. But in January, local authorities streamlined meals at public schools in Béziers, a hilltop town in southern France, and now pork is often the only meat on the menu.

“It’s a provocation,” said Rachid El Baroudi, Riyadh’s father.

Public schools across France have become the front lines of a struggle between segments of France’s large Muslim population and supporters of secularism, the strict separation of religion and state in the country. Many Muslim families say the authorities are broadening their interpretation of secularism – applying it to everything from what is served in the cafeteria to the ability for Muslim mothers to accompany field trips by wearing headscarves – so to target Muslims for their religious beliefs.

French teachers, administrators and officials say they oppose a decades-long cultural change in which schools have been pressured to accommodate the religious beliefs of many French Muslims in ways big and small . The pressure, they say, is undermining a republic built on the principle of secularism as well as on the values ​​of equality, freedom and fraternity.

Students invoke their religious beliefs by refusing to attend biology, history or music classes, teachers say. Parents also prohibit their daughters from participating in swimming lessons or going on school trips, according to teachers. A recent survey conducted by the Parisian agency Ifop revealed that 53% of teachers say that some students in their college or high school cite their religious beliefs by contesting a lesson or refusing to participate, compared to 46% of teachers in 2018.

A poster shows college professor Samuel Paty, beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee in October 2020 in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, in the western suburbs of Paris.


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thomas coex / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Tensions were heightened in October when college professor Samuel Paty was beheaded in a terrorist attack outside Paris. The assailant, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee who was later killed by police, targeted Mr. Paty for posting cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, which is prohibited by Islamic teachings. After Mr. Paty’s murder, hundreds of students across the country refused to observe a minute of silence in memory of the teacher, according to the French education ministry.

“Public schools are under attack,” said Fatiha Agag-Boudjahlat, a 41-year-old teacher in the south of the city of Toulouse. Ms Agag-Boudjahlat, who grew up in a Muslim family originally from Algeria, said her generation was not as strict in their religious beliefs as most of the students she teaches today.

In June, the education ministry announced plans to launch a new secularism training program for teachers over the next four years, after the ministry reported incidents of online lessons during the first shutdown. of the country’s Covid-19 having been interrupted by religious chants and videos of beheadings.

The government of President Emmanuel Macron has also proposed a bill to Parliament that would criminalize pressuring teachers or any other official in the name of religion.

“The republic will resist through its schools those who want to fight or divide it,” Macron said in a speech last fall proposing the bill, which also hampers the independence of mosques and other religious organizations across France. The bill is currently before the Senate, which has sought to add provisions prohibiting exit chaperones from wearing overt religious symbols.

French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed a bill that would criminalize pressuring teachers or other officials in the name of religion.


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Thomas Padilla / Zuma Press

Human rights groups say schoolchildren and parents who refuse to obey public school rules represent a minority of France’s Muslim community. Some parents also say authorities confuse children’s behavior, whether it be incidents on the playground or teenage rebellion, with religious extremism.

In Nice, along the French Riviera, Hayat Achouri said she was recently summoned by the principal of her son’s school, after staff overheard the boy tell his kindergarten classmates at the cafeteria that he was “Islamic”.

It was not clear why the principal had objected to the use of this word. The school did not respond to requests for comment. Ms Achouri said the principal warned her to be more careful with the words she uses around her son. Ms Achouri said she later found out that the children were talking about gifts they were hoping to receive for Christmas. Her son used the word Islamic, she said, while telling friends that her family celebrated Christmas despite being Muslim.

“Mom, did I say a bad word?” Ms. Achouri said her son asked her to.

The struggle for food at school is fraught with misunderstanding and tension. In his fall speech, Macron criticized local officials who “under pressure from groups or communities have considered imposing meals prepared according to religious guidelines in school cafeterias.”

Public schools in France do not serve halal, kosher or any other religious dietary requirement. The only exception is Alsace-Moselle, a border region where French laws on secularism do not apply because the region was under Prussian rule when the laws were first passed in 1905. Mr. Macron’s office refused to identify the local officials he was referring to. in his speech.

Waves of immigration from the former French colonies in North Africa have altered the demographics of some towns in rural France as well as their standards. Many schools across the country, like the one in Riyadh in Béziers, have started serving so-called replacement meals whenever pork is on the menu. This offered options like beef or chicken for Muslim or Jewish children who didn’t want to eat pork.

In recent years, some voters have responded to the influx of immigrants by electing conservative and far-right politicians to local posts. These authorities then ordered local schools to stop serving substitute meals in the name of secularism.

France’s highest administrative court ruled in December that the principle of secularism did not prohibit schools from serving meals without pork to accommodate personal religious beliefs, but that schools were not required to do so. This decision follows a complaint filed by a Muslim association against local authorities in Chalon-sur-Saône, a town in eastern France where schools stopped serving substitute meals in 2015.

The mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, who won the elections in 2014 with the support of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, this year removed “replacement meals”.


Photo:

Michael Esdourrubailh / Zuma Press

The president of the Council of Jewish Institutions of France, Francis Kalifat, said the elimination of substitute meals creates unnecessary problems.

“Some children are excluded from an important part of school life,” Kalifat said, adding that few Jewish students face this problem since most children from observant Jewish families attend schools. private nuns, who like all private schools. in France are exempt from the rules of secularism.

The Catholic Church has not weighed in on the debate on replacement meals. She supports the principle of secularism in public schools and has worked with the government to defend French republican values. Most private Catholic schools require parents to sign a republican charter.

The mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, elected in 2014 with the support of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, has removed replacement meals this year. In the new system, students can choose between weekly menus that include pork or exclusively vegetarian meals.

“These people are not allergic to pork for medical reasons,” Ménard said in an interview, referring to Muslim students. “Don’t they want to eat pork?” Eat vegetarian food.

Some Muslim families have welcomed the change. Samira Akabli, like most mothers standing in front of the iron gates of the school one recent afternoon, wears a Muslim headscarf. Her children are only allowed to eat halal meat, which means that she regularly reminded them not to eat meat served in the cafeteria. After the mayor changed the menu, she put her children on the vegetarian menu.

“That way it’s easier,” Ms. Akabli said.

Riyadh, the 10-year-old boy, said he and many of his classmates, most of whom are also Muslims, simply stopped going to the school cafeteria. “I used to like going to the cafeteria to be with my friends, but now I prefer to eat at my grandmother’s,” he said.

Write to Noémie Bisserbe at [email protected]

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