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French Ban on Religious Identity


France passed Law No. 2004-228 of 15 March 2004 (the Act), ), which prohibits students in public primary schools, secondary schools, and lycées from wearing symbols and clothing manifesting a religious affiliation, impacting Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs. French schools implementing the Act have expelled students who manifest their religion by wearing articles of faith to school. Despite a Human Rights Committee decision finding France in violation of the ICCPR, France has refused to change or amend its laws.

When facially neutral laws disproportionately affect minorities, discrimination masquerades as equality. But like the victims of more blatant forms of intolerance, children expelled from school under the Act face the stigma of being excluded from mainstream French society. Moreover, their identities are focal points for adverse treatment, a fact that surely signals to them, to other children, and to society more broadly that it is appropriate to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation. Thus, far from upholding the pluralistic ideal of secularism, the Act disadvantages minority religions in violation of international law, isolates children from their peers, and thus contributes to the very religious compartmentalization that France still seeks to prevent. Indeed, the evidence bears this out. The Act has not only resulted in marginalization for minority children, but it has also failed to abate social tensions, which have been exacerbated in recent years.

ICAAD has submitted reports to the UN Human Rights Council, UN Human Rights Committee, and the British Parliament, is participating in advocacy efforts at the UN, and is currently researching litigation and advocacy options in France and in the European Courts.


Problem Space

For decades, France has struggled to address the application of its constitutional principle of laïcité, or secularism. Originally a reaction against the dominance of the Catholic church, French secularism is a much stronger norm than, for example, the separation of church and state required by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. One of France’s most substantial challenges has been reconciling its robust vision of secularism with the recent arrival of waves of religious minority immigrants, especially Muslims, who number approximately 5 million in France.[1]

In 2003, President Jacques Chirac established an investigative commission, headed by Bernard Stasi, to determine how secularism should apply in practice. The Stasi Commission Report produced a range of recommendations, the most controversial of which was that the government should ban the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools.[2] These symbols expressly included large crucifixes, the Jewish kippah, and the Muslim veil.[3] The report based this recommendation on two objectives: first, to enforce the principle of secularism; and second, to abate coercion against some Muslim girls (typically by their families) who did not wish to wear the traditional headscarf.

President Chirac chose to act on the portion of the report recommending a ban on symbols at school. Thus, in 2004, the French legislature enacted the Act, which entered into force that school year, resulting in dozens of expulsions of minority children, mostly—but not exclusively—Muslim girls. France’s Report states that only 39 students were expelled in the first year of the Act’s implementation;[4] the French newspaper Le Monde reported that in the first year of its implementation, the Act resulted in 47 students being excluded from school, and another 96 who voluntarily chose not to return.[5] Approximately a dozen students returned to school wearing prohibited attire in the second year of implementation, and faced disciplinary proceedings.[6] In subsequent years, fewer and fewer students have attempted to wear prohibited attire to French schools, although controversy emerged in 2013 after a girl was expelled from school for wearing a headband and a long skirt that school officials deemed “too religious.”[7] Instead, students are now either attending different schools, or are attending public schools without their religiously mandated attire.

[1] This figure is an estimate, rendered by the French Minister of the Interior in 2010 because France does not include religious identification in its census. See Michael Cosgrove, How Does France Count its Muslim Population?, Mon Figaro, July 7, 2011, http://plus.lefigaro.fr/note/how-does-france-count-its-muslim-population-20110407-435643.

[2] The report, in its original French, used the word “ostensible.” See Commission de Reflexion sur L’application du Principe de Laïcite Dans la Republique, Rapport au President de la Republique 41, 58-59 (Dec. 11, 2003).

[3] Id. at 58-59.

[4] See France’s Fifth Periodic Report ¶ 412.

[5] See Les signes religieux ostensibles ont pratiquement disparu des écoles, Le Monde (Sept. 9, 2005), available at http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2005/09/29/les-signes-religieux-ostensibles-ont-pratiquement-disparu-des-ecoles_694106_3224.html.

[6] Id.

[7] See Nabila Ramdani, Veil Row Reignites in France after 15-year-old Girl Expelled from School for Wearing a Headband and Long Skit Which Were Considered “Too Religious,” Daily Mail Online (UK) (April 7, 2013), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2305314/Veil-row-reignites-France-15-year-old-girl-expelled-school-wearing-headband-long-skirt-considered-religious.html.


ICAAD seeks to challenge the discriminatory law in France to allow religious minorities to practice their faith freely. ICAAD has engaged in advocacy efforts primarily through international human rights mechanisms, including:



Safya_Akorri Safya Akorri is an attorney with Paris-based law firm Vigo.

Ranjit-160x160 Ranjit Singh

tejinder Tejinder Singh

Hansdeep_Pic_1 Hansdeep Singh

jks-bio-just-head-147x160 Jaspreet K. Singh





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