February 5, 2014
France’s Foreign Ministry has denied media reports that a French international school in Qatar has agreed to teach Islamic sharia law and separate boys and girls into different classrooms.
A recent agreement between the Lycée Voltaire in Doha and French authorities does not involve changes to religion classes or dividing classes by sex, Paris said after reports of the accord sparked outrage in France.
Under French law, state-run schools are barred from providing religious education. However, the state does subsidize private schools, like Doha’s, provided they follow the French state curriculum, do not force religious teaching upon students, and do not discriminate according to religion or sex.
“By signing the accord, the [Doha] school has committed itself to respecting the “Charter of French Teaching Abroad”, which outline the principles of secularism and religious neutrality in education,” the Foreign Ministry said on its website. “The school, which goes from kindergarten to sixth grade, is mixed-sex. All of its classes include both boys and girls, in accordance with the spirit and practices of French education,” it added.
Prominent French news outlets, including the left-leaning weekly Marianne, blasted the country’s international school agency last week for allegedly allowing the Doha school to teach strict Muslim sharia law and place boys and girls in separate classrooms from a certain age.
France’s Foreign Ministry, which helps oversee hundreds of French international schools around the world, said that while religion classes were taught at the Lycée Voltaire, they were part of an after-school program, as is the case in many other international French schools.
Religious education was compulsory for Qatari students at the school, as per Qatari law, but not students of other nationalities, it said.
However, some observers said French officials were not being completely transparent about the situation at the Lycée Voltaire, which boast an enrollment of around 1,000 students, roughly 40% of which are Qatari nationals. Marianne journalist Martine Gozlan said the school’s sixth grade class would not open until next year, and that discussions were ongoing over the question of separating pupils by sex at that level.
“Voltaire come back, Qatar is driving them crazy!” Gazlan wrote in the left-wing magazine, referring to the Enlightenment philosopher famous for his advocacy of secularism and his fierce attacks on religious dogma.
This is not the first time the Doha-based school makes headlines in France. In November 2012, the eviction of the school’s director prompted accusations of repeated interference by Qatari authorities.