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Quebec asks France for tips on applying secularism laws in education system

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The Legault government is undertaking discussions with the French government to explore the country’s “best practices” in applying its laws.

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QUEBEC — The Legault government is seeking advice from the French government on how to ensure its secularism law, Bill 21, is respected in the education system.

Three weeks after the visit of French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who made a passionate pitch for secularism in a speech to the National Assembly, Quebec’s Minister Responsible for Laicity, Jean-François Roberge, is following up.

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Roberge has solicited a meeting with the French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, to obtain advice on France’s “best practices” on applying its secularism law, which is much stricter than Quebec’s.

He makes the request in a letter. Initially obtained by Radio-Canada, Roberge’s office released a copy of the letter to The Gazette Friday.

“Even if the Quebec secularism model does not go as far as that of France, I am of the opinion that we have much to learn from the French experience in the matter of applying state secularism and the challenges this poses including in the domain of education,” Roberge writes.

“I am convinced of the pertinence of working together … to face the challenges we will meet.”

Roberge’s letter emerged a day after the Coalition Avenir Québec government adopted Bill 52, the law it tabled in February to renew the use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause shielding Bill 21 from court challenges for another five years.

The law was adopted in an 83-26 vote with the Quebec Liberals and Québec solidaire MNAs present voting against.

Quebec’s law is different from the French law. Quebec’s bans public workers in positions of authority — teachers, police officers, judges — from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab, crucifix, turban or kippah while on the job.

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The French law adopted in 2004 extends those rules to all the students, too, banning them from wearing “signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” such as headscarves, turbans or kippahs.

Reached Friday, an aide to Roberge said the minister is not proposing to reopen Quebec’s law, adopted in 2019, to make it stricter or a copy of the French law.

“It is simply an exchange, a sharing of our experiences,” the aide said. “We are at the stage of launching a dialogue with France on the subject, as requested by the two leaders (Attal and Premier François Legault).

“It is a dialogue that could determine which are the best practices which could inspire Quebec within the existing legislative framework..”

The aide added Quebec has not had any particular problems lately applying the rules of Bill 21, a law being contested to the Supreme Court by the English Montreal School Board and the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE) teacher’s union.

There have been incidents in France. In March Attal, a former education minister, had to intervene in a case where a student refused to remove her veil in the classroom. She later accused the principal of the school of having pushed her around.

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Attal came to the defence of the principal who received death threats after the incident. He said the state would be filing a complaint against the student for falsely accusing the principal.

But it’s clear the Legault government was pleased and inspired with what Attal had to say in his April 11 speech to the legislature, the first by a French PM in 40 years, and wants to pursue the discussion.

In his speech, Attal made a stirring pitch for laicity.

“To those who insist on not understanding what laicity is, who try to deform it, to make it seem it is somehow an anti-religion weapon, to make people think it is form of negation of religion, to say it is a form of discrimination, we respond that laicity is a condition of freedom, equality and fraternity,” Attal said in his speech.

In his comments this week during the debate on the renewal of the notwithstanding clause, Roberge heaped praise on Attal’s speech.

“What a beautiful way to express the principles of laicity,” Roberge told the legislature. “They have in France a laicity model that belongs to them, which is extremely interesting.”

In his letter to Darmanin, Roberge says he agrees secularism is a “positive vector permitting the creating of winning conditions to unite” society.

The French Education Ministry’s website describes specific measures the country has taken to ensure its law is respected, which could be food for thought for Quebec in its discussions.

The French, for example, have created a “council of wise persons on laicity,” which meets to advise the government of concrete ways to ensure the law is working.

Each school has a “Republic values team,” made up of teachers and employees to train personnel on the “appropriate way to react” if they witness infractions of the law.

At the beginning of each school year, schools receive kits with reference documents that deal with laicity to ensure the principles are understood and taught in the classroom.

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