French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called for a ban on Islamic headscarves at universities, sparking a controversy in the government.
In an interview with the French newspaper Libération on Tuesday, the premier said that “we should do it, but there are rules in the (French) constitution which make such a ban difficult,” adding that government and university authorities should then be uncompromising on the rules of secularism in higher education.
Valls also shocked France’s Muslim community by claiming that a “majority of French citizens” think that Islam is incompatible with the values of the French Republic.
Premier’s controversial comments, however, received opposing responses from his center-left government.
“There is no need for a law on the headscarf at university,” said Thierry Mandon, the higher education minister, adding that students are adults, and hence they “have every right to wear a headscarf. The headscarf is not banned in French society.”
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem also said she was “against any legal ban” on headscarves at state universities. “Our universities also have a lot of foreign students. Are we going to ban them access because in their culture there's a certain type of clothing?" she said, adding that university students are young adults with freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
Right-wing politicians, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy, have in the past suggested that the Islamic hijab should be banned in higher education institutions. But, university authorities insist students should be free to do as they please and that any such prohibition would be illegal.
France has some of the strictest laws in Europe on the wearing of Islamic veils in public. In 2004, it made the hijab ban into a broad law which also covers schoolchildren and even parents who want to accompany class outings. The ban, which views hijab as a “conspicuous” religious symbol, has enraged Franc’s Muslim community, which is the largest in Europe.
In 2011, the then-conservative French government also banned the niqab (full-face veil) in public.