PARIS (Reuters) - France fired a top regional education official on Wednesday for vigorously opposing a new Muslim school and publicly complaining about pressure from Paris to stop obstructing its opening.
The Al-Kindi high school, in a suburb of Lyon in eastern France, finally admitted its first 22 pupils on March 5 after an eight-month struggle with school board head Alain Morvan that ended only when Paris intervened to permit it to open.
Morvan’s stubborn campaign became a sore point for French Muslims who accused him of Islamophobia for refusing them the right to launch a faith school although about one-fifth of all high schools in France are private, mostly Catholic.
In rejecting three requests to open the school, Morvan accused its founders of being “fundamentalists” and said he would sign refusals to open it “down to the last drop of ink.”
Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said Morvan was replaced because “his behaviour was not that of a senior official, whose task is to carry out government policy”.
Al-Kindi is the third Muslim school in France, whose five million Muslims make up eight percent of the population. It only took in 22 sixth-grade pupils, because it opened halfway through the school year, but expects about 150 in September.
Several other Muslim groups around the country, spurred into action by France’s 2004 ban on Islamic headscarves in state schools, have also begun planning to open their own schools.
A private Muslim school can allow headscarves and teach Islam, but it must follow the state curriculum in all regular subjects if it wants state subsidies. A school must teach the state curriculum for five years before getting the subsidy.
Al-Kindi will be France’s biggest Muslim school next September. The other two, located in the suburbs of Paris and Lille, have a few dozen pupils each.
Hakim Chergui, deputy head of the school association named after the ninth-century Arab philosopher Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, told Reuters the curriculum reflected Muslim values but it was not “a Koran school.”
Headscarves are not obligatory, even if most girl pupils wear them, and religion class will be optional. Physical education classes will be mixed, but both boys and girls will wear modest sweatsuits rather than short gym attire.
“We do not stop classes for prayers,” he said. “Children who want to pray can do so during recreation periods.”
Among its special features will be a special emphasis on teaching languages, including Arabic, Turkish and Chinese, and courses on Islamic cultures.
The school project aroused some suspicion because its founders belong to the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), a national body with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
But its organisers met the Education Ministry’s requirements for private schools, so education officials — except Morvan — gradually agreed it had to be allowed to open.