Food Fight

The debate over secularism in French school cafeterias

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
01 December, 2015

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.

Jacques Boutault, the mayor of Paris’s second district, which has introduced vegetarian dishes once a week on school menus, told me, “This is outrageous. They are presenting a very closed-minded concept of secularism.” According to Boutault, most school canteens have served alternatives to pork for almost 50 years, in order “to give all citizens a fair choice.” He said that, for a long time, animals were considered on par with furniture in France. But the country recently passed a law that deems animals “living beings capable of sensitivity,” and those who wish not to eat meat must have the option not to. “This notice also emphasises the word ‘philosophical.’ This is pure nonsense,” Boutault said. “Since when is philosophy contrary to secularism?” Although the advisory notice had been planned since last year, he thought it was meant to target Muslims, and was a “direct consequence of the attacks.”

Interpretations of French laws on secularism are at the heart of this debate. The idea of secularism allows several readings, as demonstrated by a debate over headscarves that raged under the Sarkozy regime. According to a 1905 law on the separation of church and state, institutions run by the French government, including schools, must follow the principle of “laïcité,” which prohibits religious or ideological influence on government policy and affairs. Following the attacks of 2015, laïcité has been projected by many politicians as the solution to many of France’s cultural conflicts.

This September, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the minister of education, said she would implement a strict policy to protect and promote secularism, among other values of the French Republic, at schools. On the basis of laïcité, teachers, like other government officials, are forbidden to wear in public any political or religious signs, including the Jewish kippa, the Christian symbol of the cross, the Sikh turban, or the Muslim veil. Over the last few years, the law has come to be applied to students as well. However, the same law defends the right to one’s own ideas and ideology, as long as they are kept private and are not imposed on others. It states that religious signs should not be “conspicuous,” although anything worn discreetly, such as a cross around the neck, is authorised. (What constitutes “discreet” is open to interpretation.)

Although France prohibits religion-based questions in its census, according to an independent study, between 63 and 66 percent of France is Christian, between 23 and 28 percent is non-believing, between 7 and 9 percent is Muslim, 0.5 percent is Buddhist, 0.5 percent is Jewish and about 1 percent is constituted by “others.” According to government data, France has 52,225 schools, of which 46,962 are directly run by the state. Nearly six million children eat at school canteens every day.

Primary school canteens, run by local municipalities, currently follow a guideline issued in 2011 about the type of food they should offer, with an emphasis on eating meat, the only source of protein mentioned in the document. This directive has been questioned by several animal-rights activists, campaigning for vegetarianism, despite the order’s caveat that accommodations can be made at the discretion of the local mayor. So the issue of food offered in school canteens has made allies out of vegetarians and religious groups.

On 2 September, just before schools reopened, I talked to Platret, who said, “Secularism means that public facilities and religions should be strictly apart. So why should we serve substitute meals to accommodate those who follow religious food prohibitions? It does not mean that some children will go on an empty stomach. We will just make sure that they are served a little bit more of everything else.”

A week after I talked to Platret, I spoke to Laure Letondel, an officer of education for the eighteenth district. She questioned Platret’s understanding of French secularism. “As a public service, even if optional, we have to serve everyone without discrimination,” she said. In her canteens, every meal containing pork has been accompanied by a non-meat substitute since at least 2002. “We never had any complaints about the food, nor demands about halal or kosher meals, although our district is famous for its multiculturalism,” she added. Her municipality has introduced monthly vegetarian meals in all 83 schools of her district. But, like all French municipalities, the school canteens have to follow the 2011 guideline.

On 30 September, in the town of Sannois, in the Val-d’Oise region, a local court ruled against a Muslim family that had demanded the substitute meat-free school meals not be scrapped. According to the newspaper Le Parisien, the mother, Fatima, was unhappy with the court’s decision. She was quoted saying, “Children, whatever age they are, have the right to be raised in a religion. It is this freedom today that has been denied despite the fact that laïcité does not ignore religion, but on the contrary, respects all sensitivities.”

I also met Valérie Adt, a sociologist who has studied the behaviour of schoolchildren in canteens. Adt said she did not think the controversy affected the children themselves very much. “The current debate involves the politics and the parents much more than the children,” she told me. She added that vegetarianism could facilitate a conciliation between different practices, by sidestepping religious restrictions such as kosher and halal. “But one has to keep in mind that children’s eating behaviours are extremely versatile and flexible. Children develop food mimetism,” she said, meaning that they are heavily influenced by what their peers and others around them eat. During fieldwork for her academic research, she told me, she found “children who eat only halal at home eating non-halal at school,” as well as “a teenage girl saying she doesn’t eat a dish,” who then did eat it “because her friend does it.”

Then there are some parents, such as Kamal Kant and Megha Panwar, both professional Indian kathak dancers and teachers who moved to Paris from Jaipur, who tell their daughter to adjust to French culture. “We believe that children should be exposed to different tastes,” Kant told me. “At home what we eat and do is different, although we also cook French or other non-Indian food, but at school she should be free to choose to eat like the others if she wants to.” Kant did add, “Of course, vegetarian meals would be great for those who don’t eat meat.”