Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France has sparked controversy by suggesting the hijab should be banned in universities, and that a majority of French people think Islam is incompatible with the secular values of the Republic.
The Socialist reopened the divisive question of whether Muslim students could be banned from wearing the hijab at French universities.
In a long interview with the daily Libération, he was asked whether headscarves worn my Muslim women should be banned by law from universities and replied: “It should be done,” conceding that the constitution made it difficult.
But other Socialist ministers opposed him. “There is no need for a law on the headscarf at university,” said Thierry Mandon, the higher education minister.
He said students were adults, and as such they “have every right to wear a headscarf. The headscarf is not banned in French society.”
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the education minister, said she did not support banning headscarves from universities, adding that students were young adults with “freedom of conscience and religious liberty” to do as they please.
“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.
In the past, figures on the right, including the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, have suggested that the hijab should be banned from higher education.
But university leaders have consistently expressed strong opposition to any ban, saying students should be able to do as they please, and that discriminating against students in headscarves is illegal.
Last December, the French national consulting body, the Observatory of Secularism, found it would be “neither useful, nor appropriate” to legislate on the wearing of religious symbols – including the hijab – at universities.
Valls also came under fire for telling Libération: “I would like us to be able to demonstrate that Islam, a great world religion and the second religion of France, is fundamentally compatible with the Republic, democracy, our values and equality between men and women.”
Asked if he was therefore implying that Islam had so far not shown itself to be compatible with French society and values, he said: “Certain people don’t want to believe it, a majority of French citizens doubt it, but I’m convinced that it’s possible.”
Abdallah Zekri, head of the Observatory on Islamophobia and a member of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, was shocked at the prime minister was suggesting Muslims in France had not already demonstrated that their religion was totally compatible with life in France.
“We’re fed up of being stigmatised … [and] of this populist discourse which is worse than the far-right,” he told BFM TV.
Patrick Mennuci, a Socialist MP in the Bouches-du-Rhone, tweeted of Valls’s comments on the headscarf in universities: “Why open a debate that doesn’t exist? Let’s concentrate on real problems.”