(JTA) — The French Education Ministry sent out a circular reminding teachers that wearing religious symbols in public schools is illegal and urging them to punish noncompliant students.
The reminder appeared in an 83-page document sent Wednesday to thousands of public schools throughout France titled “handbook on laïcité,” a French-language word describing the principal of ensuring both religious freedom and the separation of religion from the state.
Like a document distributed in 2016 on the same subject, the handbook lists both the Jewish kippah, or yarmulke, as forbidden to be worn in public schools, along with head covers favored by Muslim females and large cross pendants. But it goes further than the earlier document in that it instructs teachers to pursue disciplinary measures against those who “test the application” of these rules, as per a law from 2004, the Marianne magazine reported Friday.
The handbook states it seeks primarily to “check the spread of extremist viewpoints,” a statement many take to mean radical Islam. It also calls for disciplinary action against students who refuse for religious reasons to partake in activities that some devout individuals consider improper, such as swimming lessons with members of both genders or sexual education classes.
Long skirts that appear to comply with religious requirements also are not allowed.
However, the handbook also says that the application of the ban on religious symbols should be “on a per-case basis,” according to La Depeche daily.
Whereas in the 1990s the majority of Jewish children attended public schools in France, only a third of them do so today, according to Francis Kalifat, the head of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities. Thousands have left the public education system due to anti-Semitism, he said, including virtually all of the children from observant families where males wear a kippah and girls wear long skirts.
Still, in some places, including the affluent Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Jewish parents enroll their children in public schools that are considered safer than others because Jews comprise more than half of the student body. But even there, more observant parents tend to enroll their children in Jewish private schools.
Meyer Habib, a lawmaker in the lower house of the French parliament and a former vice president of the CRIF, said he supported the regulations, which he said would have little to no effect on the daily lives of French Jews.
Still, he urged selective enforcement of the regulations.
“Jewish symbols must not be treated the same as characteristics of radical Islam,” he told Ynet. “We’ve never killed innocents in Europe generally and in France specifically in the names of Jewish values,” he said of Jews.