France blames children missing swimming lessons on ‘separatism’

The government is launching an inquiry into chlorine allergy certificates, suggesting families have ‘conveniently’ used them to prevent girls from swimming.

France's efforts to investigate missed swimming lessons are being made during the coronavirus pandemic, when pools are closed [Eric Gaillard/Reuters]

Paris, France – Rights groups have criticised France’s decision to crack down on allergy certificates used to exempt students from swimming pool lessons, saying the move was an “Islamophobic” gesture.

France’s education and interior ministries on Thursday announced they would launch an inquiry into “chlorine allergy” certificates to gather information on the practice, after officials suggested that the documents were ostensibly fake and being used by “religious” parents to stop their daughters from swimming.

While government statements regarding the investigation have not explicitly referenced the words “Muslim” or “Islam”, critics say that the measures are squarely aimed at France’s 5.7 million-strong Muslim community.

Announcing the inquiry, the Ministry of the Interior said in a statement on Thursday that it was “determined” to strengthen the “values of the Republic”, especially as a new bill against what French President Emmanuel Macron has termed “Islamist separatism” was being debated.

“School should not be a breeding ground for ‘religious separatism’ when an act or a demonstration results in a refusal of activity, a specific demand, a challenge to teaching in the name of religious convictions,” the statement said.

“In recent years, there has been an increase in the issuance of certificates by health professionals prescribing a contraindication to swimming lessons for young girls. These so-called ‘chlorine allergy’ certificates of convenience cannot be tolerated in schools in the Republic as long as they are not based on medical reasons.”

Marlene Schiappa, citizenship minister, and Jean-Michel Blanquer, education minister, are leading the inquiry, the results of which will be made public.

Schiappa tweeted on Thursday: “[Schools] must fight against separatist ideologies which primarily target little girls.”

At the time of publishing, the Ministry of the Interior had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

“France has 99 problems,” tweeted Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French religious freedom, civil liberties and human rights researcher. “But the priority of the French government is to go after Muslim female students allegedly trying to skip swimming classes.”

Sefen Guez Guez, a lawyer for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) civil rights group, told Al Jazeera: “We aren’t naive; it is clearly targeting Muslims.

“It is an agenda. They are trying to decide how Muslims must live their religion – this is not respecting laicite [France’s form of secularism].”

Guez Guez expressed disbelief that the efforts are being made during the coronavirus pandemic, when swimming pools across France are closed.

“I think it’s incredible,” he said. “How is this a priority? And are they going to start policing allergy certificates?

“It’s part of a wider effort to stigmatise Muslims. It’s not a serious problem. But the government wants to fill the news and media with a new problem every week.”

Heated debate

The topic of girls avoiding swimming pool lessons at college or high school has been raised regularly during debates over France’s controversial “separatism” law, which is currently being discussed by politicians in the National Assembly.

The government says the draft bill is designed to strengthen French secularism, but rights groups have condemned the proposed law while experts have said secularism is already protected by the country’s legal framework.

The bill includes tighter controls on homeschooling, limits on donations to religious groups from abroad, and a requirement for all associations in France receiving public funding to sign a contract pledging to respect Republican values.

Schiappa raised the subject of swimming during a hearing on January 11, saying an “exponential rate of schoolchildren allergic to chlorine” was down to “certificates of convenience to escape swimming pool sessions”, as she blamed families for acting on “religious considerations”.

Source: Al Jazeera