Politics on the school dinner menu in France

Members of the public and journalists watch as councillors attend a City Council meeting on the end of the pork alternative menu in schools in September 2015 in Chalon-sur-Saone Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The plans have provoked much opposition from members of the public who attended a council meeting

France is going through one of its periodic bouts of "secularitis" - that disease of the national soul whose symptom is loud and prolonged agonising over the encroachments of religion.

This time the issue is school meals - and specifically the question of whether town authorities should be obliged to offer Muslim children an alternative to pork, whenever pork appears on the menu.

In some countries, that might seem a no-brainer.

"Why not?" would be a more likely interrogation.

In France, it is not as simple as that. Here, there is a very strong and broadly accepted answer to the question, "Why not?".

Which is this: that in France there is an agreed and rooted way of life, one of whose hallmarks is the banishment of any whiff of faith or creed from the institutions of public life.

This is not just a whimsy dreamed up to inconvenience modern-day believers.

It is a central tenet of the French social contract that dates back more than 100 years.

So the issue today is not whether this code of "laicite" is right or wrong.

In practice, everyone from the Front National to the far-left, thinks it is a vital part of France's political heritage.

The issue is whether that heritage should be exercised with the blind uncompromising rigour of the past.

Or whether new circumstances - such as a population of many millions of Muslims - require a new flexibility.

Principle or pragmatism

As so often in France, it is principle versus pragmatism.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gilles Platret says the aim is to leave religion at the school gate

And this being France, pragmatism is not necessarily the favourite to win.

The latest row has erupted over a decision by the Burgundy town of Chalon-sur-Saone to end the practice of so-called "substitute meals".

For 30 years, the town's schools - like most schools in France - have provided an alternative menu for Muslim (and the far fewer Jewish) children on the occasional days when the meat part of the lunch is from the pig.

But abruptly last month - at the start of this school year - the centre-right mayor Gilles Platret decided that this was to end.

The reason he gives is a sound invocation of the country's long-standing secular values.

"What we are doing is simple: we are leaving religion at the school-gate," he says.

By stopping special meals for Muslims, "we no longer file people under religious faith; we no longer group people together according to diet."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Najat Vallaud-Belkacem opposes the plan

For Platret - and those who think like him - the ban is not a mean-minded attack on a minority, but a positive step toward restoring strict neutrality.

The target is not the Muslim community, but the anti-French notion of "le communautarisme" - the breaking up of society into separate bits, in the way that many French think that the UK has suffered from "multiculturalism".

If children do not want to eat pork, says Platret, then they can fill up on starters and vegetables; they can arrange their own packed lunches; or they can go home.

If parents are really concerned, they can send their children to Muslim schools in the private sector.

He also notes that even when pork is not on the menu, many Muslim children are under instructions from parents not to touch meat of any kind because in French schools it is generally not halal.

So, he says, the fuss against what he has done is somewhat artificial.

Unnecessary provocation

However, the opposing view holds that what Platret has done at Chalon-sur-Saone is unnecessary, inflammatory and politically motivated.

The Socialist government accuses the mayor of "talking Muslim children hostage".

The concept of Laicite:

Essentially Laicite means that there is a complete separation between the state and religious affairs. The concept was enshrined in French law in 1905.

The French state and government can take no position on any religion or religious belief, and should not get involved in the religious life of its citizens.

State officials can only speak about religious beliefs if they are considering the practical impact on citizens.

In theory, it also means that religion cannot interfere in the functioning of government.

Laicite has led to the widespread feeling in France that public expression of religious belief is distasteful - essentially religion is something you practise in private.

Removing the possibility of a "non-confessional" menu - according to Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem - "is tantamount to barring access to the canteen" because many Muslim children will be told by their parents to stay away.

The left sees in the initiative a clear bid by Les Republicains (Nicolas Sarkozy's former UMP) to grab votes from the surging Front National.

It is hard not to agree.

Sarkozy is building his bid for the 2017 presidential election, and knows there is a huge pool of votes lying to his right. (Though oddly, the FN's Marine Le Pen seems more relaxed about the issue than he does).

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Is more choice the answer?

Sarkozy has openly aligned himself with Platret's initiative - to the point where many on the left suspect the mayor is in fact doing Sarkozy's bidding.

Critics say the ban on substitute meals is not secularism in action, but an "instrumentalisation of secularism".

For Nicolas Cadene, who heads the government's Observatoire de la Laicite: "The purpose of secularism is not to erase all distinctions in society."

Cadene says there has been no groundswell of opinion in France calling for the removal of substitute non-pork meals - which leads him to believe that what has happened in Chalon-sur-Saone is indeed a politically motivated distraction.

The answer, he says, is perfectly simple: offer more choice.

It is, after all, what most canteens do anyway with the growth of self-service.

So why make an argument about religion when there does not need to be one?

It is the pragmatic response to a prickly subject, which may yet win the day.

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