French education minister wants trial run of school uniforms amid abaya ban row

A Muslim woman wearing an abaya walks in a street in Nantes

PARIS (Reuters) - French Education Minister Gabriel Attal said on Tuesday he was in favour of trialling school uniforms or a dress code amid a debate over a ban in state-run schools on abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robes worn by some Muslim women.

Uniforms have not been obligatory in French schools since 1968 but have regularly come back on the political agenda, often pushed by conservative and far-right politicians.

Attal, who announced the abaya ban earlier this week, told BFM TV he would provide a timetable in autumn for carrying out a trial run of uniforms with any schools that agree to participate.

"I don't think that the school uniform is a miracle solution that solves all problems related to harassment, social inequalities or secularism," he said. But he added: "We must go through experiments, try things out" in order to promote debate, he said.

France has enforced a ban on religious symbols in state schools since 2004 to uphold its strict brand of secularism known as "laicite". The topic is a sensitive one, regularly triggering political tension in the country.

For some, wearing a uniform means equality and erasing differences of social status and wealth. For others it is a debate that is not needed and is distracting from more serious issues such as discipline and harassment.

In January 2023 President Emmanuel Macron's wife Brigitte told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview that a school uniform "erases differences, we save time - it's time-consuming to choose how to dress in the morning - and money - compared to brands."

She recalled wearing a uniform for 15 years, a navy blue skirt and sweater as a student, telling the paper she took it well.

"So I am in favour of wearing a school uniform, but with a simple and not dull outfit."

(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Hugh Lawson)