French politicians back school head who quit in veil row

Teacher who allegedly asked a Muslim student to remove her veil has received death threats

A woman wearing a hijab walks at Trocadero square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, May 2, 2021. Picture taken on May 2, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
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French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal on Wednesday defended secularism in the country after the resignation of a Paris school principal who received death threats after asking an adult Muslim student to remove her veil on the premises.

The state will also file a complaint against the student over falsely accusing the headmaster of mistreatment during the incident in late February, said Mr Attal, a former education minister.

“The state … will always stand with these officials, those who are on the front line faced with these breaches of secularism, these attempts of Islamist entryism in our education establishments,” he told TF1 TV channel.

According to Le Monde, the Education Ministry released a statement saying it would “never” abandon teachers in the face of “threats”, adding that the principal's decision to leave his post was “understandable given the seriousness of the attacks against him”.

Secularism and religion are hot-button issues in France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim community.

In 2004, authorities banned schoolchildren from wearing “signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” such as headscarves, turbans or kippas on the basis that the country's secular laws are meant to guarantee neutrality in state institutions.

The government last year said it was also banning the abaya – a garment worn by Muslim women that covers the body from the neck to the feet – in schools.

The headmaster's departure comes amid deep tension in the country after incidents including the killing of a teacher by an Islamist former pupil last year.

The principal at the Maurice Ravel lycee in eastern Paris quit after receiving death threats online following an altercation with a student last month, officials told AFP on Tuesday.

On February 28, he had asked three students to remove their headscarves on school premises, but one of them – an adult who was at the school for vocational training – refused and an altercation ensued, according to prosecutors.

In a message to the school's staff, quoted by French communist daily L'Humanite, the principal said he had made the decision to leave for his “safety and that of the school”.

Education officials said he had taken “early retirement”.

Mr Attal said the headmaster had been due to retire in June, and decided to leave a little earlier.

The student lodged a complaint against the principal, accusing him of mistreating her during the incident.

She told French daily Le Parisien that she had been “hit hard on the arm” by the headmaster.

But the Paris prosecutor's office on Wednesday told AFP that her complaint had been dismissed.

An investigation has been opened into cyber harassment after the death threats against the headmaster.

Politicians from across the spectrum on Wednesday said they were shocked by the resignation.

“It's a disgrace,” Bruno Retailleau, the head of the right-wing Republicans faction in the Senate upper house, said on X.

Boris Vallaud, the head of the Socialist deputies in the National Assembly lower house, told television broadcaster France 2 the incident was “a collective failure”.

Marion Marechal, the granddaughter of far-right patriarch Jean-Marie Le Pen and a far-right politician herself, spoke on Sud Radio of a “defeat of the state”.

Maud Bregeon, a politician with President Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance party, also took aim at “an Islamist movement”.

“Authority lies with school heads and teachers, and we have a duty to support this educational community,” Ms Bregeon said.

Socialist Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo called the principal to “assure him of her total support and solidarity”, said her office, adding she was “appalled and dismayed”.

Education Minister Nicole Belloubet visited the school in early March and deplored the “unacceptable attacks”.

A 26-year-old man has been arrested for making death threats against the principal on the internet. He is due to stand trial in April.

The uproar comes as dozens of French schools have received attack threats in recent weeks.

Mr Attal has pledged to “hunt down” those responsible for sending them.

Two brothers aged 17 and 19 were arrested on Thursday in a western Paris suburb as part of an investigation into terrorist threats against 130 secondary schools, media network BFM TV reported.

One of the messages said: “I have decided with my Islamic State brothers to explode everything.”

About 50 schools in Paris received bomb threats on Wednesday, some including a “very violent video”, education authorities said.

The mayor's office said classes were briefly interrupted for security checks.

Mr Attal pledged to increase security, including near schools, after ISIS claimed responsibility for killing 137 people at a Moscow concert on Friday.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 12:51 PM