The education minister announced on Sunday that abaya dresses worn by some Muslim women would be prohibited from being worn at school, arguing that the garment breached France’s strict secular education standards.
“It will no longer be possible to wear an abaya at school,” Education Minister Gabriel Attal told TF1 television, saying he would give “clear rules at the national level” to school heads ahead of the return to classes nationwide from September 4.
The decision follows months of controversy around the wearing of abayas in French schools, where women have traditionally been prohibited from donning the Islamic headscarf.
The prohibition was backed by the right and far-right, while the left felt it would violate civil liberties.
There have been reports of abayas being worn more frequently in schools, as well as confrontations between instructors and parents over the subject.
“Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school,” Attal said, describing the abaya as “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must constitute.
“You enter a classroom, you must not be able to identify the religion of the students by looking at them,” he said.
A law of March 2004 banned “the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” in schools.
This includes large crosses, Jewish kippas, and Islamic headscarves.
Unlike headscarves, abayas — a long, baggy garment worn to comply with Islamic beliefs on modest dress — occupied a grey area and had faced no outright ban until now.
But the education ministry had already issued a circular on the issue in November last year.
It described the abaya as one of a group of items of clothing whose wearing could be banned if they were “worn in a manner as to openly display a religious affiliation”. The circular put bandanas and long skirts in the same category.
Approached by head teachers’ unions about the issue, Attal’s predecessor as education minister Pap Ndiaye replied that he did not want “to publish endless catalogues to specify the lengths of dresses”.
At least one union leader, Bruno Bobkiewicz, welcomed Attal’s announcement Sunday.
“The instructions were not clear, now they are and we welcome it,” said Bobkiewicz, general secretary of the NPDEN-UNSA, which represents head teachers.
Eric Ciotto, head of the opposition right-wing Republican party, also welcomed the news.
“We called for the ban on abayas in our schools several times,” he said.
However, Clementine Autain of the left-wing opposition France Unbowed party condemned what she called “clothing policing.”
Attal’s remark, she maintained, was “unconstitutional” and violated the basic principles of France’s secular traditions, as well as indicative of the government’s “obsessive rejection of Muslims.”
She claimed that President Emmanuel Macron’s administration had only recently returned from the summer recess and was already attempting to contend with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally.
Since a radicalized Chechen immigrant beheaded teacher Samuel Paty, who had showed children caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, outside his school in a Paris neighborhood in 2020, the discussion has heated up.
The CFCM, a national body encompassing many Muslim associations, has said items of clothing alone are not “a religious sign”.
The announcement is the first major move by Attal, 34, since he was promoted this summer to handle the hugely contentious education portfolio.
Along with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, 40, he is seen as a rising star who could potentially play an important role after Macron steps down in 2027.