Food Fight

The debate over secularism in French school cafeterias

01 December 2015
In a number of towns in France, local politicians have declared that public schools will not offer alternative meals when pork is on the menu.
balint porneczi / bloomberg / getty images
In a number of towns in France, local politicians have declared that public schools will not offer alternative meals when pork is on the menu.
balint porneczi / bloomberg / getty images

On 17 March, about two months after the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Gilles Platret, the mayor of the town of Chalon-sur-Saône in France’s Burgundy region, wrote a letter to parents, declaring that schools under his control would no longer offer alternative meals when pork was on the menu. A member of the right-wing political party Les Républicains, headed by France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Platret explained that substitute pork-free meals were a religious concession to religious sentiments, and that he was returning to the “French principle of secularism.” Shortly after, he was challenged in a local court by the Islamist group Muslim Judicial Defence League, who said that “secularism” was being used as an excuse to target and stigmatise Islam. On 13 August, the court ruled in favour of the politician. He tweeted the same day in response, “First victory for secularism!”

Platret’s actions had an impact throughout France. In other towns, such as Wissous and Chilly-Mazarin, both close to Paris, and the city of Toulouse in the south, mayors decided to stop offering such substitute meals in public schools. Parents, activist groups and opposition parties alleged that these politicians were trying to hijack the principle of secularism to further an agenda of religious intolerance. The controversy spawned multiple court cases, and started a debate across the country on whether school canteens should accommodate particular food habits on the basis of religious beliefs.

Now, Platret is in the news again. On 18 November, five days after the deadly attacks on Paris by Muslim extremists, the Association of Mayors of France released a notice on “best practices on secularism for French mayors.” The document, in the works since last year, was supervised by the Workshop Group on Secularism, government initiative co-headed by Platret. One of the report’s directives states that school canteen menus must not be “elaborated on the grounds of religious or philosophical motivations.” It also criticises compulsory substitute vegetarian meals, offered by a number of schools, saying that the imposition of any particular dish is unacceptable.

Clea Chakraverty Clea Chakraverty is a journalist based in Paris. She worked in Mumbai between 2006 and 2013 as a reporter for several French media outlets.

Keywords: France secularism politics food school cafeteria pork
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