School head threatened by father in France abaya row

Man's daughter was stopped at the entrance of her high school and asked to remove her abaya - when she refused, she was blocked from entering

On the first day of the school year on Monday, about 300 schoolgirls defied the ban. Reuters
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A French head teacher is under police protection after reportedly being threatened by a father in a dispute over the new ban on abayas in schools, officials said on Friday.

Police in Clermont-Ferrand, central France, said they were holding a man after he made threatening remarks against the head teacher after the school turned away his daughter for wearing an abaya.

The man has been charged with “issuing threats designed to intimidate a person charged with an official mission”, local prosecutor Dominique Puechmaille said.

The abaya has been included in an expanded list of religious items – made public right before the start of term – that are banned from state schools in France.

President Emmanuel Macron's government said it was banning the abaya because it broke the rules on secularism in education.

The man's daughter was stopped at the entrance of her high school on Thursday and asked to remove her abaya. When she refused, she was blocked from entering, police said.

He then telephoned the school and spoke first to a guard and then to an educational adviser. He is accused of having issued death threats against the head teacher in both conversations.

French Education Minister Gabriel Attal called the threats “intolerable and unspeakable”. The head teacher is now under police protection, he said.

The president of the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, added that school staff had also received threats “of death and decapitation”.

A law introduced in March 2004 banned “the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” in schools.

That included large Christian crosses, Jewish yarmulkes and Islamic headscarves, but until now the abaya – a long, baggy garment – occupied a grey area.

The ban was challenged before France's State Council, the highest administrative court, by a Muslim rights’ group, which argued the ban could incite hatred against Muslims and racial profiling.

On Thursday, the court threw out the complaint.

Wearing the abaya “follows the logic of religious affirmation”, said the ruling. It added that the decision was based on French law, which does not allow anyone wearing visible signs of any religious affiliation in schools.

The government ban did not, it said, cause “serious or obviously illegal harm to the respect for personal lives, freedom of religion, the right to education, the well-being of children or the principle of non-discrimination”.

On the first day of the school year on Monday, about 300 schoolgirls defied the ban. Of those, 67 refused to change clothes and were sent home.

About 10 per cent of France's 67 million inhabitants are Muslim, according to official estimates.

Most have origins in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, which were French colonies until the second half of the 20th century.

Updated: September 08, 2023, 8:01 PM