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.
Contrairement à ce qui a pu être affirmé au cours des derniers jours, le ministère de l’Intérieur et des Outre-mer ne pratique bien évidemment aucun fichage des élèves en fonction de leur confession.
Aucune donnée nominative n’a été ni demandée ni recensée à aucun moment. pic.twitter.com/U8rs5t3rtH
— Sonia Backes (@SoniaBackes) May 21, 2023
“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.
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.”