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  • November 2015: The training of imams in France

The issue of training for imams has been a subject of discussion for a few years now, in France. Alain Juppé, Mayor of Bordeaux, stated during a television interview on 17 November that he wanted to render imam training compulsory. Meanwhile, the President of the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), Anouar Kbibech, announced on November 24 that he wanted to set up “imam accreditation” certifying the teaching of a “tolerant and open Islam”. In so doing, they revived the public debate.
“Imam training” can imply different realities, though. The first idea that comes to mind is religious training; however, as France is a secular Republic, the training of religious leaders is not covered by the State (except under local law in Alsace-Moselle). Imams can therefore receive such training in France only at private institutes such as Al-Ghazali or the European Institute of Human Sciences sponsored by UOIF; otherwise, they are trained abroad.
This does not mean, however, that the State is turning its interest away from training for religious leaders. The Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, stated in June that imams posted from their countries of origin (Turkey, Algeria and Morocco), which represent the majority of the approximately 2,300 imams of France, will soon be required to take part in 125 to 200 hours of civil and civic training, culminating in a university degree. This will probably be carried out through a programme of international collaboration: for example, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius signed in September a cooperation agreement with Morocco so that the religious training followed in Rabat by around fifty French imams is supplemented by civic education provided by France. An agreement was also signed with Algeria, on 8 October, to make registration mandatory for Algerian imams sent to France for a degree in secularism. Negotiations are also underway with Turkey.
The university training courses in secularism organised in France are therefore gaining dimension. Prime Minister Manuel Valls had already announced as much in March 2015, and the Ministry of the Interior is preparing a decree that will ultimately require all State-paid chaplains (serving in hospitals, prisons or the army) to receive training in secularism. Five new university degrees (DU) opened in 2015, will come in addition to the six that already existed (see training in secularism).

Anne-Laure Zwilling
  • November 2015: ECHR judgement

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has handed down its 26 November ruling in the Ebrahimian v. France case (petition No 64846/11).
Christiane Ebrahimian was recruited as a social worker at general Hospital in Nanterre, a public establishment. In December 2000, the hospital refused to renew her employment contract on the grounds that she refused to remove her headscarf while working. Mrs Ebrahimian contested her dismissal, but the French court ultimately confirmed its validity. Mrs Ebrahimian appealed to the court alleging that this non-renewal of the contract was a breach of Article 9 of the Convention.
The Court of Justice in Strasbourg, in a decision delivered by six votes in favour and one against, states that the French model is based on principles aimed at “the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others”. It also wrote that "the national authorities have not overstepped their margin of appreciation by noting the lack of possible reconciliation between Mrs Ebrahimian’s religious beliefs and the obligation to refrain from displaying them" (see article by Le Monde or Human Rights Europe).

Anne-Laure Zwilling
  • September 2015: substitute menus vs vegetarian menus in school canteens

On 14 September, the Minister of Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, stated that she did not wish to make the vegetarian menu mandatory in canteens, the substitute menu having enabled all requests to be met for many years now. The Minister thus took a position in a debate that resurfaces from time to time but already extends several years back. In France, it municipalities are in charge of school canteens for first-cycle education (primary schools). Already in 2013, Didier Doucet, mayor of Lagny-le-Sec, refused menu diversity in school canteens. In 2014, he was followed by a number of others, including Marcel Morteau, mayor of Sargé-lès-Le-Mans (in the latter case, the Observatoire de la Laïcité had reiterated, in an opinion made public on 10 December 2014, that "secularism cannot be used as grounds to refuse menu diversity").
Last March, Gilles Platret, mayor of Chalon-sur-Saône and co-president of the "secular" working group within the Association of Mayors of France (AMF), decided to put an end to menus with substitutes for pork in the school canteens in his city. The Muslim Judicial Defence League filed an appeal with the Dijon Administrative Court. Gilles Platret explained his position, citing the principle of neutrality and equal treatment in public service (see Le Figaro).
On 13 August 2015, the Dijon Administrative Court dismissed this appeal on the grounds of “lack of urgency”: it considered that, insofar as no meal containing pork would be served before 15 October, “access to school food services for all users, including children of the Muslim faith, does not appear to be jeopardised”.
The Muslim association simultaneously initiated a substantive procedure which will not be considered until several months from now, but has warned that there will be a continuation of proceedings if Gilles Platret’s decision is ratified by the City Council on 29 September.
On 14 August 2015, Yves Jégo, UDI MP (Union of Democrats and Independents) and Mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne (Seine-et-Marne), announced that he would submit a bill to make an alternative vegetarian meal compulsory in school canteens. He launched an online petition that received over 129,000 signatures in 4 weeks’ time. Some cities have already been offering this type of menu for some time, Perpignan (in June 2015) and Pau and Toulouse (in September 2015) followed more recently.
Underscoring the concurrent religious and political dimensions of this topic, in March 2015, several intellectuals, including the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, signed an opinion piece in newspaper Le Monde: “The vegetarian menu, the most secular of all ", explaining that their proposal was first and foremost pragmatic, and that the vegetarian meal was the one that was suitable for the widest possible population. The Minister’s recent statement, however, shows that she does not support this proposal.

Catherine Zimmerlin
  • June 2015: accompanying parents and religious signs

The Administrative Court of Nice, in a ruling handed down on 9 June 2015, brought a new factor into the debate on the legal status of parents of pupils volunteering to accompany school trips while wearing the Islamic headscarf. It had been maintained thus far that parents were, under those circumstances, subject to the obligation of religious neutrality in public service and, therefore, could not wear religious signs. This position had been set out by the Montreuil Administrative Court in a ruling issued on 22 November 2011, according to which the disputed internal regulations constituted “an application of the constitutional principle of neutrality in public service to parents of pupils accompanying school field trips, who participate as volunteers in the public service of the elementary school”.
Adopting a more liberal position, the Nice Court ruled, on the contrary, that “parents of pupils authorised to accompany a school outing in which their child participates, must be seen, like pupils, as users of the public education service” and that “restrictions on the freedom to express their religious opinions can only result from specific texts or considerations relating to public order or the proper functioning of the service”. In this instance, however, none of these grounds had been cited against the appealing party. This ruling echoes the opinion of the Council of State in December 2013. The Council of State had been asked for an opinion by the Public Defender of Rights, precisely to determine whether mothers accompanying school outings are allowed to wear religious external signs. On this occasion, the Council clearly reasserted that “there is no relevant legal category between agent and user” (p. 29), such that the obligation of religious neutrality would apply. Only “requirements relating to the proper functioning of the public education service may lead the competent authority, in the case of parents of pupils participating in school trips or activities, to recommend refraining from showing their religious belonging or beliefs” (p. 34).

Anne Fornerod
  • May 2015: Secularism in Alsace-Moselle

In May 2015, the Observatory on Secularism published an Opinion on the legal regimen on local faiths in Alsace and Moselle, opening a few avenues for a possible modernisation in this regard. The changes aim to align the local law in effect in Alsace-Moselle with general law, modify the organisation of religious education and enable administrative simplification. Thus, it is expected that local law will soon, like general law, repeal the offence of blasphemy under local law (which does not exist in general law), and align the punishment for disturbance of a practice of religion with the 9 December 1905 Law.
Religious education should be chosen by pupils who wish to take part, and not, as is currently the case, have to be refused by those who do not want to participate in it. Students should furthermore be free to change their decision in this respect at any time in their schooling. Religious education should be organised as an addition to general school education, and the “supplementary moral teaching” required of students who do not take part in a religious course should be abolished, this course now being part of the national curricula.
Lastly, a practical manual of local law should be produced, administrative relations between the public authorities and religious communities should be simplified, and district maps managed at the prefect level.
The law on faiths in Alsace-Moselle had been consolidated by the Constitutional Council and declared compliant with the Constitution, in February 2013.

Anne-Laure Zwilling

D 15 December 2015    AAnne Fornerod AAnne-Laure Zwilling ACatherine Zimmerlin

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