Outcry after French police question schools about pupils absent on Muslim holiday
Anti-racist groups and teaching unions in France have demanded an inquiry into why French police requested schools provide information on the number of pupils absent on the Muslim festival of Eid.
The Ministry of the Interior has confirmed it asked some schools in the south-western city of Toulouse "to evaluate" the rate of absenteeism on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, on 21 April, but it refuted claims that the request constituted a census on faith.
France's laws on secularism forbid the gathering of statistics relating to ethnicity, origins or religion, with very few exceptions.
Police sent emails to school principals in the academy of Toulouse asking them how many students were absent on the day as part of a "request from the intelligence services" to calculate the percentage of absenteeism... during the Eid holiday".
The request was made directly to the schools concerned, without the approval of the Toulouse rectorate.
"In no case do we carry out investigations of this kind," Mostafa Fourar, the rector of the academy, told French news agency AFP.
"As soon as the heads of establishments and school principals informed us of this request, instructions were given not to respond to it," the rectorate said.
"We see this as a serious drift, a stigmatisation of Muslim students and an attack on their freedom of conscience."
Leaders of associations and trade unions have expressed concern over the police initiative.
The police request is "particularly shocking in that it associates Muslim religious practice with the issue of security", said human rights group SOS Racisme, underlining that the request to schools came from the departmental directorate of public security (DDSP).
"For what other religious holidays does the Ministry of the Interior request an assessment of the rate of absenteeism", the group asked in its press release.
The Sud-Education teachers' union said it didn't understand how such an initiative could have come about "without having been discussed anywhere".
The Union of Mosques of France has called for a "proper investigation".
"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 police's request," it said.
Responding to the criticism, Secretary of State for Citizenship, Sonia Backès, issued a statement on Sunday in which she acknowledged the Interior Ministry had made the request for information on absenteeism, but denied any desire to classify students according to their religion.
"The ministry regularly studies the impact of certain religious holidays on the functioning of public services, particularly within the school system," she wrote, adding that "no nominative data has been requested or recorded at any time."
According to a 2004 circular, pupils are required to maintain regular school attendance but are allowed to take a day off to commemorate and take part in religious holidays, providing the request is made in advance.