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Outcry in France as Principal Steps Down Over Head Scarf Incident

A Paris school principal’s decision to step down after he received online death threats over an incident involving a Muslim student’s head scarf has prompted national outrage this week in France.

Camera crews have descended on the school and the government said it planned to sue the student, accusing her of making false accusations — the latest flashpoint in a debate over French secularism and the treatment of the country’s Muslim minority.

Officials say the incident occurred on Feb. 28 at the Lycée Maurice-Ravel when the school’s principal asked three students to remove their head scarves on school grounds. Two of the students complied, but a third refused, causing an “altercation,” according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

Since 2004, middle and high school students in France have been barred from wearing “ostentatious” symbols that have a clear religious meaning, like a Catholic cross, a Jewish skullcap or a Muslim head scarf.

The full details of the altercation are unclear. But the incident quickly drew national attention in France, where the perceived encroachment of Islam in the public school system is an extremely sensitive topic.

The country remains deeply scarred by the killing of two schoolteachers by Islamist extremists in recent years.

The student told investigators that the principal had pushed her and hit her arm, but the Paris prosecutor’s office said that a complaint she had filed accusing the principal of assault had been dropped over a lack of evidence. The principal filed a separate suit accusing the student of intimidating a public official, the prosecutor’s office said.

The government and politicians across the spectrum have defended the principal and disputed the accusations of violence made against him.

French officials have not publicly identified the principal or the student. The regional education authority for Paris said that the student dropped out of the school shortly after the incident.

The controversy began to draw greater national attention last week after the principal decided to step down. In a message to school staff that was shared with the French media, he said he had decided to leave over concerns about his personal safety and the school’s own security.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said that the threats against the principal were “unacceptable” and announced on Wednesday that the government would file a legal complaint against the student, accusing her of trying to “intimidate” the principal by making wrongful accusations of violence against him, leading to a wave of online death threats.

“Laïcité is constantly being put to the test,” Mr. Attal told a national television station on Wednesday about the case, referring to France’s version of secularism, which guarantees freedom of conscience but also the strict neutrality of the state and of some public spaces.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had opened an investigation into the death threats and “cyber-harassment” faced by the principal. Three people have already been arrested, and one of them will face trial next month, the prosecutor’s office said.

Mr. Attal, who met with the principal on Wednesday, said that the principal was scheduled to retire in June but had decided to step down earlier because of the threats. The prime minister added that the state would be unwavering in its support for “all of those who are on the front lines of these attacks on laïcité.”

In his former position as education minister, Mr. Attal had spearheaded a ban in schools of the abaya, a loosefitting, full-length robe worn by some Muslim women.

Nicole Belloubet, Mr. Attal’s successor at the ministry, visited the school in early March to express support for the principal, and she assured lawmakers this week that he had been given full legal and moral assistance. Police officers were also deployed in front of the school as a precautionary measure after the incident occurred, she said.

In a video published by the Collective for Countering Islamophobia in Europe — a Belgium-based activist group that was created after a similar one was disbanded by the government in France — the student said that the altercation happened as she was leaving school.

Speaking with her face blurred to conceal her identity, the student said that she was starting to cover her head with a hat as she prepared to put on her head scarf when the principal shouted at her to remove it.

Before she could comply, she said, the principal “pushed me violently” and “hit me hard on the arm,” then he tried to drag her to his office until another student intervened, she said.

The Collective for Countering Islamophobia in Europe condemned the death threats against the principal but accused the French government of “fueling a climate of conflict within schools, pitting teachers, pupils and families against each other.”

“We want to reiterate our commitment to the fight against all forms of harassment and discrimination, especially toward Muslim students, who are under undue pressure in the current climate,” the group said in a statement.

For many in France, the case echoed the chain reaction that led to the killing of Samuel Paty in 2020. The history teacher was beheaded in a northwestern suburb of Paris by an Islamist assailant after he showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his students in an attempt to illustrate free speech.

Mr. Paty was murdered less than two weeks after a schoolgirl lied about attending his class and made false accusations against him — setting off a spiral of online rumors that ultimately put the killer on his trail.

The killing last year of Dominique Bernard, a French literature teacher who was stabbed to death at a high school in northern France by a radicalized former student, put the country further on edge.

In an interview with French television on Thursday, Mickaëlle Paty, Mr. Paty’s sister, praised the government’s swift reaction to the incident at Lycée Maurice-Ravel. But Ms. Paty, who wants the government to be held responsible for failing to protect her brother, said there was still a “lack of awareness” of the threats faced by teachers.

A French Senate report published this month found there was a worrying rise of insults, threats and physical violence against teachers over the past few years, and it urged the government to increase security and schools and to make it easier for staff to flag worrying incidents to the Education Ministry.

A lone camera crew was still lingering in front of the school on Thursday, but the atmosphere was calm. Several students said that they had not witnessed the incident themselves, but were taken aback by the national attention it had received and the rumors it had spawned.

“The rules are the rules, we all signed them at the beginning of the year: it says the head scarf is banned inside the school,” said Yacine Kone, 16. But, she added, the principal “shouldn’t put his hand on a student, even if it’s just to touch her.”

Ralph Modisa, 15, said the principal had a good reputation with students. “People are getting a bit too fired up over nothing,” he added.

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting.

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