Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said girls had to go to school dressed “à la republicaine”. It apparently means prim and modest, but no one is quite sure.
Meanwhile, fueling feelings that women in France simply can’t win, some have recently come under fire for covering up too much – by wearing a Muslim headscarf.
Blanquer was responding to an initiative launched on social networks, dubbed the Monday September 14 Movement, encouraging students to come to school in their best “provocative” or “indecent” clothes. The idea was to claim freedom from what is considered an implicit dress code in public schools, which have no written rules on dress.
In a country where portraits and statues of the bare-chested symbol of France, Marianne, are ubiquitous, Blanquer’s remark sparked mockery on social media. Some posts depicted French Revolutionary women in their traditional “Phrygian” bonnets and dresses with deep necklines exposing the cleavage.
The word “republican”, referring to the French Republic, has been increasingly used in recent years by government officials to describe the values of the democratic system on which France has been built for more than 200 years. But many, even among his government colleagues, think Blanquer has gone too far.
“In France, everyone is free to dress as they wish,” the minister responsible for equality between women and men, Elisabeth Moreno, told the Parisian daily on Tuesday. “Women have taken centuries to be able to free themselves from dress codes. This freedom (conquered) is priceless.
For some, the education minister’s remark in response to the September 14 movement is a minor dispute, but for others it is the serious issue of women’s rights that is at stake. Moreno and the minister of education industry, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, regretted that only girls were at the center of the debate.
A teacher at a high school in Alfortville, south-east of Paris, Françoise Cahen, tweeted: “The parents of young Marianne are asked to quickly collect their child, expelled from school for her non-republican dress”. Attached is a photo of the bust of Marianne, national symbol of France, bare breasts.
In another tweet, Cahen noted that what’s really “indecent” about school are needy students who can’t afford school supplies or sports shoes.
Amid derision and disagreement, the education minister could take solace in a poll on skin-revealing clothes at school published on Friday by polling institute Ifop.
The poll of 2,027 adult men and women of all ages showed widespread opposition to such attire, with 73% women opposed and 58% men. The poll had a margin of error of about 3%.
Two out of three French people (66%) are opposed to schooling without a bra, including 41% of younger people. Plunging necklines were also seen as class inappropriate attire, while popular crop tops baring the midriff received a no from 55% of older people, while 59% of under-25s approved.
Pollsters tied the findings not to Republican dress, but to a general sentiment that “it’s still up to the girls to deal with male desire” despite their generation’s rejection of those notions.
The debate over school dress has also been framed by the resurgence of the long-running controversy over the Muslim headscarf, seen as an affront to France’s secular foundations. Headgear has been banned in French schools since 2004.
A Muslim university student who wears a headscarf has been kicked out of Twitter after she demonstrated on French TV how other students can cook meals on a budget. And separately, the vice-president of the student union UNEF, Maryam Pougetoux, sparked an incident when she appeared before a parliamentary committee on youth and the coronavirus in her headscarf.
Several outraged elected officials have left, starting with Anne-Christine Lang, from the centrist party of President Emmanuel Macron. She tweeted that as a “feminist committed to republican values…and women’s rights” she saw the veil as a “mark of submission” and had no choice but to leave.
The UNEF replied that “being a feminist is as much about supporting the Monday, September 14 movement as it is about supporting women who choose to wear” the headscarf.
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