14 arrested after students riot over right to wear religious garb inside French school

France’s education minister reported a sharp increase in the number of attacks against secularism in French schools

editor: REMIX NEWS
author: John Cody
French police battled with protesters outside a high school in Versailles.

Protesting students, who blocked the entrances to the Joliot Curie high school in Nanterre, clashed with police on Tuesday, resulting in 14 students being arrested for hurling projectiles at officers and shooting firework mortars.

The high school has become a flashpoint in the city of Versailles, featuring teacher strikes and regular rallies in support of a suspended mathematics teacher, however, the school of 1,600 students is also protesting over the right to wear religious garb, which is in violation of French law designed to preserve secularism.

Two officers were injured during the clashes, and police responded with tear gas and burst rounds. Students say they will lift the blockade only when the ban is lifted on wearing loose clothing, such as abayas, which are long loose dresses worn throughout the Islamic world that cover everything from the neck down to the ankles. In addition, students want the restoration of homework help in all subjects and the reinstatement of a suspended mathematics teacher, according to Le Parisien newspaper.

Ten of the arrested are minor high school students, mostly between the ages of 15 and 17, and four are not students of the establishment. The blockade was led by around 30 students and followed by a maximum of 250 people, but the protesting students claim that the blockade was supported by 90 percent of the student body.

Despite a strict history of secularism, there is a growing trend of Middle Eastern and North African students wearing religious garb in French schools. French Education Minister Pap Ndiaye indicated that feedback from the field confirmed “an increase in reports” of attacks against secularism since the start of the school year for “wearing clothing or accessories of a religious nature.” Those include abayas and qamis (long clothing for men), in schools, colleges, and high schools, as reported by the BFM TV news outlet.

Pap Ndiaye
French Education and Youth Minister Pap Ndiaye, center, and French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti attend a reception for France’s prefects at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, Thursday Sept. 15, 2022. (Ludovic Maris, Pool via AP)

The minister, who had pledged total “transparency” on these issues, released the figures on attacks on secularism in September on Thursday in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde. He declared that, for September, 313 attacks on secularism were reported versus 904 in the April-July quarter and 635 between December and March.

“The month of September confirms this increase in acts of violation of the principle of secularism,” said Pap Ndiaye, adding that “most of these reports, 54 percent, concern the wearing of religious signs and outfits.”

The rest of the attacks reported are made up of 8 percent for suspicion of proselytism, 7 percent for refusal of school activity, 7 percent for objections to teaching, 7 percent for community claims, 5 percent for verbal provocations, and 2 percent for the refusal of republican values.

“In addition, 10 percent correspond to other forms of attacks on secularism,” notes the Ministry of Education in a press release.

Before the start of the school year in September, a state anti-radicalization service had sounded the alarm: The Interministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency and Radicalization (CIPDR) had accused the “Islamist movement” of questioning the principle of secularism at school, based in particular on posts seen on Twitter or TikTok. People are encouraged on social networks to wear clothes marking a religious affiliation.

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