Demands for inquiry after French police ask schools for information on pupils absent on Muslim festival of Eid

Teaching unions and anti-racism charities have demanded an inquiry after French police sent a request to schools for information on the number of pupils absent on the Muslim festival of Eid.

Demands for inquiry after French police ask schools for information on pupils absent on Muslim festival of Eid
France's Secretary of State for Citizenship Sonia Backès is embroiled in a controversy over a request for school absentee figures on the Eid religion holiday. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

The French government has confirmed that it asked for “an evaluation” of the number of pupils absent from schools in one south-western city on the day of Eid al-Fitr last month, but has rejected claims the controversial request amounted to a census on faith.

Such a study would be illegal under France’s secularism laws.

Police asked school principals in Toulouse to tell them the number of students absent on the day, according to reports as part of a “request from the intelligence services” to calculate “the percentage of absenteeism […] during the Eid holiday [on April 21st]”.

The request was made directly to schools, without the involvement of local education authorities, the Toulouse rectorate said.

“As soon as the heads of establishments and school principals informed us of this request, instructions were obviously given not to respond to it,” the rectorate told AFP. “We see this as a serious drift, a stigmatisation of Muslim students and an attack on their freedom of conscience.”

Human rights group SOS Racisme led widespread criticism of the request, which officials have tried to brush off as merely clumsily addressed: “For which other religious holidays does the Ministry of the Interior request an assessment of the absenteeism rate?” it demanded.

The Union of Mosques of France has called for a “proper investigation” into the matter. “Families must be duly informed and reassured of the fate of the information given by some heads of schools who have, unfortunately, responded to the request of the police,” it said.

Teaching unions, too, came out in condemnation. “We do not understand how we could have this initiative, without it having been discussed anywhere,” a spokesman for the regional section of teachers’ union SUD-Education, said. 

“SUD-Education 31-65 will call on the School Security Police Correspondents, the prefecture and the rectorate to request explanations regarding this procedure and to demand the official withdrawal of this injunction which is akin to denunciation.”

Secretary of State for Citizenship Sonia Backès has now acknowledged that the Interior Ministry requested some academies provide information for an “evaluation of the rate of absenteeism observed on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr” but denied any desire to file students according to religion.

“The ministry regularly studies the impact of certain religious holidays on the functioning of public services, particularly within the school sphere,” she wrote. And she insisted: “No nominative data has been requested or recorded at any time.”

Despite France’s secular laws, several Christian festivals are public holidays in France. Non-Christian pupils are permitted to take a day off school for religious holidays, provided the request is made in advance.

READ ALSO Reader question: Can I take my children out of a French school during term time?

A circular published in 2004 stated: “Authorisations of absence must be able to be granted to pupils for major religious holidays which do not coincide with a day off and the dates of which are noted each year by an instruction published in the Official Bulletin of National Education.”

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French prime minister comfortably survives censure vote

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne avoided parliamentary censure in an early morning vote on Saturday after she forced the government's budget plan through the National Assembly without a vote.

French prime minister comfortably survives censure vote

The motion to censure Borne — the 18th levelled at her since she assumed the office — was brought by the left-wing Nupes alliance after the prime minister activated Article 49.3 to adopt the public finance bill without a vote.

The motion received just 193 of the 289 votes needed to succeed, an unsurprising outcome in light of the lack of support from the centre-right.

Its rejection constitutes the adoption of the 2023-2027 budget programme, which now moves to the Senate, the upper house of the French parliament.

The speaker for Nupes, socialist Philippe Brun, accused the government of “favouring with the greatest servility a very well-endowed minority of the French” despite “an immense inflationary crisis”.

President Emmanuel Macron had “tried to make parliament disappear with his repeated (use of) 49.3”, Brun added.

The far right had supported the left’s motion of censure, accusing Borne of the “repeated and abusive use of 49.3”.

Borne, for her part, hit back at both factions, saying “demagoguery is your only budgetary course”.

The government also resorted to Article 49.3 earlier this year to push through unpopular pension reforms, sparking violent protests.