French secularism is seen as discriminatory against Muslims by a growing number of students who seek greater tolerance in society.
More than 16 years since France banned the hijab in schools, 52 percent of French high school students lean favourably towards overtly religious symbols such as the hijab, kippah or the cross being worn in schools.
The proportion is more than twice as high as the adult population at 25 percent and indicates young people are increasingly rejecting politically driven secularism.
The findings released by the French Institute of Public Opinion (Ifop) are also a blow to efforts by President Emmanuel Macron to convince a younger generation of France's rigid form of secularism or laicite.
Opinion | When will #France end its war against its own #Muslim population that it had always viewed with suspicion?— Politics Today (@mypoliticstoday) March 5, 2021
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French laicite is one of the main pillars of the French Republic and is rooted in a 1905 law instituting the separation of church and state. And while the 1905 law ensured the free public expression of any religion in previous decades, laicite has increasingly been used by French politicians to discriminate against the country's growing Muslim population.
The Ifop poll found that 49 percent of students wouldn't mind public officials displaying their religious beliefs, and 57 percent support parents who wear religious items accompanying students on school trips.
Both issues have been a source of controversy in France as some politicians have sought to ban Muslim women who are wearing the hijab from attending school trips with their children.
The pollsters found that young people are increasingly more open-minded and at odds with the rest of the population, calling it a "clear generational divide." In 2009, for instance, 58 percent of high schools were against the hijab being worn in schools, and the sea change in attitudes is driven by amongst other things solidarity amongst students with their classmates.
French youngsters are also more likely to be open towards Muslim women wearing a full-body swimsuit, leaving only the face and hands uncovered. Students even here had a higher degree of acceptance at 38 percent, then the general population at 25 percent.
When it comes to the question of the "right to blasphemy" here again, French high school students by a small majority distinguished themselves from the rest of French society.
Just over 52 percent of students don't believe there is such a right, putting them at odds with much of France's political establishment and Macron, who has championed the right to blasphemy under the banner of free speech.
In recent years, the issue has emerged as a source of controversy with the French magazine Charlie Hebdo printing offensive cartoons against the Prophet Muhammad in particular which French politicians and the media have largely backed. Charlie Hebdo has also printed offensive cartoons towards other religions.
“[...] when France’s universalist social model [...] is often criticized in the United States as little more than a camouflage for discrimination against Muslims or people of color, the story of the 369th is a reminder that prejudice knows no boundaries.” https://t.co/Ns1R7YIhWx— Dr. Kaylee Alexander (@kpalex91) March 7, 2021
The polling is evidence that French students may want to break out of a contentious cycle and have a mature conversation about the role of religion and secularism in society.
One such area are the views students have towards secularism. Only 11 percent of students back the French state's version of secularism, which aims to reduce the "influence of religion on society," according to the Ifop poll.
Students, according to the poll, believe in a "minimalist" view of secularism, with 29 percent believing that the role of secularism should be about putting "put all religions on an equal footing" or to "ensure freedom of conscience".
The Ifop survey author lamented the results as a "victory of an Anglo-Saxon or even Islamist vision of things."
The wide-ranging poll of French students is one of the most comprehensive polls of its kind, looking at shifting attitudes as the country grapples with increasing polarisation driven by the far-right and Macron's anti-Islam rhetoric.
The laws regulating secularism in the country are seen as discriminatory towards Muslims by more than 37 percent of students surveyed. In contrast, 81 percent of Muslim students surveyed believed that laws on secularism discriminated against them.
Predictably, pollsters found that schools, where students were from different backgrounds, were more likely to question how secularism impacted minorities.
Working-class students that live alongside Muslims in some of the country's most deprived neighbourhoods, by a majority of 55 percent, believed that French secularism discriminated against Muslims.
One academic reacting to the poll described it as a "masterful snub" to French politicians and the media going on to say that it's a "stinging failure to 4 decades of indoctrination" and the "intellectual & cultural withdrawal into oneself & ethnocentrism."
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