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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Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Pope Francis arrived in Marseille on Friday for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, bringing to France a message of tolerance amid bitter debate over how Europe manages asylum seekers.

Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Marseille was decked out in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican for the first visit by a pope to France’s second-largest city in 500 years, where 100,000 people are expected to turn out to see the pontiff in his “popemobile” on Saturday.

The 86-year-old is visiting to take part in a meeting of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops and young people — but his trip comes at a politically sensitive time.

The pontiff disembarked at Marseille airport from his plane away from the view of cameras. He was then wheeled in a wheelchair towards Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who was waiting on the airport tarmac to greet him, an AFP correspondent said.

He then stood up from his wheelchair to acknowledge the welcome of a military band.

A surge in migrant boats arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week trigged outrage in Italy and a heated debate across Europe over how to share responsibility for the numbers.

Marseille is a historic gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.

The desperate conditions that cause many people to leave their homes for a new life, and the risks they take to do so, have been a key theme during Francis’s decade as head of the Catholic Church.

Speaking at the Vatican on Sunday, he noted that migration “represents a challenge that is not easy… but which must be faced together”.

He emphasised the need for “fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place”.

Ahead of what will be his 44th overseas trip, Francis acknowledged this month that papal voyages were not as easy as they used to be.

He underwent hernia surgery in June, less than two years after having colon surgery, and routinely uses a wheelchair because of a troublesome knee.

Meeting pilgrims

Despite the decline in France of Catholicism, the once dominant faith, the pope’s visit has sparked huge enthusiasm, with almost 60,000 people expected at a mass on Saturday afternoon.

“Habemus papam” headlined regional newspaper La Provence, using the famous Latin phrase meaning “We have a pope!” used  on the election of a pontiff.

For Joseph Achji, a 25-year-old Syrian Christian originally from Aleppo, the pope’s visit is a “chance of a lifetime”.

He will head to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a symbolic monument overlooking the city, for a prayer with local clergy on Friday afternoon.

That will be followed by a moment of meditation with representatives of other religions at a memorial to sailors and migrants lost at sea.

The United Nations estimates that more than 28,000 migrants who have tried to cross the Mediterranean since 2014 have gone missing.

After 8,500 migrants landed on Lampedusa in three days earlier this month, the European Union promised more help for Rome.

But France, amid wrangling over a draft law governing migrant arrivals there, said it would not accept anyone from the island.

“We are expecting very strong words” from the pope, said Francois Thomas, head of Marseille-based SOS Mediterranee, which operates a migrant rescue boat in the sea.

“It is our humanity that is sinking if Europe does not do something.”

Mass with Macron

On Saturday morning, Francis will take part in the closing session of the “Mediterranean Meetings” event.

As well as migration, it will cover issues such as economic inequality and climate change — also themes close to the pope’s heart.

On Saturday afternoon, Francis will lead a mass at the Velodrome stadium, with French President Emmanuel Macron among those due to attend.

Macron’s attendance has sparked controversy among left-wing politicians in the officially secular country.

Some right-wing politicians have criticised the pope’s stance on migrants — but Marseille mayor Benoit Payan said the pontiff “has a universal message… of peace”.

Francky Domingo, who runs a migrant association in Marseille, said he hoped the visit would “give back a little hope” and “ease tensions at the political level”.

“Marseille is a cosmopolitan city, multicultural, multi-faith,” he told AFP, but faces “enormous difficulties”.