France will ban children from wearing the abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robes worn by some Muslim women, in state-run schools, Education Minister Gabriel Attal said on Sunday before schools reopen.
The move comes after months of debate over abayas in schools, where pupils are already banned from wearing Islamic headscarves, large Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes.
“I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools,” Mr Attal told TV channel TF1.
“When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn't be able to identify the pupils' religion just by looking at them.”
The right and far-right have pushed for the ban, which the left said would encroach on civil liberties.
“Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school,” Mr Attal said.
He described the abaya as “a religious gesture” aimed at testing France’s secularist ideals.
Mr Attal said he would give “clear rules at the national level” to school heads before the return to classes nationwide from September 4.
France, which has enforced a strict ban on religious signs in state schools since 19th century laws removed any traditional Roman Catholic influence from public education, has struggled to update guidelines to deal with a growing Muslim minority.
In 2004, it banned headscarves in schools and passed a ban on full face veils in public in 2010, angering some in its five million-strong Muslim community.
Defending secularism is a rallying cry in France that resonates across the political spectrum, from left-wingers upholding the liberal values of the Enlightenment to far-right voters seeking a bulwark against the growing role of Islam in French society.
Until now, the abaya has been a grey area.
The CFCM, a national body encompassing many Muslim associations, has said items of clothing alone were not “a religious sign”.
The announcement is the first big move by Mr Attal since he was promoted this summer to handle the hugely contentious education portfolio.
Along with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, he is considered to be a rising star who could play an important role after President Emmanuel Macron steps down in 2027.