It has been just over a year since the French government passed its controversial law prohibiting the wearing of all 'ostensible religious symbols' in France's state schools. And as feared by opponents of the ban, recent reports by two organisations confirm that Muslim schoolchildren have disproportionately suffered as a result.
The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) estimates that around 60 pupils have 'been ejected from the state school system since the law came into effect on 15 March 2004'. Of these, 42 Muslim and six Sikh teenagers were expelled from their schools, 11 Muslim pupils were enrolled in schools abroad including Belgium, Turkey and Germany, and at least one Muslim pupil left school altogether.
While these provisional figures match those of the French government, they are lower than those collected by another organisation, the Committee of the 15 March and of Freedom, which estimates that almost 70 pupils, mainly Muslim, have either been expelled or have abandoned school altogether. Another 26 students were reported to have 'voluntarily' left their schools during the period of dialogue between headmasters and pupils, and 77 Muslim students enrolled in schools abroad. Finally, according to both government and the Committee's statistics over 500 pupils, overwhelmingly Muslim, have been forced to remove their 'headgear' since September 2004.
The Alsace-Moselle region has seen the largest number of young Muslims excluded. Ironically, this is the only region where Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious teaching is allowed in State schools, as it belonged to Germany when the main laws on secularism were passed.
Perhaps the most shocking evidence of how the ban has been enforced, however, is that the majority of pupils have been expelled for simply wearing bandanas. This might, at first, seem a little strange - since a bandana can hardly be considered as 'conspicuously marking religious affiliation'. It makes more sense, though, if you consider that the presumption of a pupil's religion is often based upon their ethnicity so that the ban affects a specific kind of bandana wearer: those of African and Arabic descent.
Such a questionable racist measure would of course violate the principle of equality amongst users of public services, also enshrined in French law. But, according to Lila Charef, a former lawyer who accompanied many pupils during their disciplinary proceedings, this is exactly what has been happening in France under the new law. 'Discriminatory controls based on ethnic background were made in many schools', Lila commented. 'A young French girl of North African descent who was called up in front of the disciplinary council rightly pointed out that another pupil who also wore a bandana had not had any disciplinary charges brought against her.'
The period of dialogue that is legally required before any disciplinary action is taken is also being used to degrade and humiliate pupils, in effect punishing them before they have even been judged. Those affected have typically found themselves isolated from the rest of their schoolmates, some moved for weeks from one empty classroom to another according to the needs of the school. In various schools, pupils have been deprived of recreation or access to dining halls to prevent them from having contact with their friends.
The State is still legally obliged to provide all pupils with continuous educational support until the exclusion measure has been put in place. However, the evidence shows that 'educational support' has usually meant photocopies of lessons, at best, rather than actual teaching, which has heightened the students' sense of isolation and punishment.
'What really struck me', confided Lila Charef, 'was the collective collusion against these children, who were forced to choose between their desire to study and succeed, as many of these pupils were brilliant students, and their religious convictions. I think this was the hardest thing for these girls.'