By Juliette Jabkhiro
PARIS (Reuters) -The French government's decision to ban children from wearing the abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robes worn by some Muslim women, in state-run schools drew applause on Monday from the right, but also criticism.
France has enforced a ban on religious symbols in state schools since 2004, to uphold its strict brand of secularism, known as "laicite". The topic is a sensitive one, regularly triggering political tension in the country.
"Our schools are continually put under test, and over the past months, breaches to laicite have increased considerably, in particular with (pupils) wearing religious attire like abayas and kameez," Education Minister Gabriel Attal told a news conference to explain Sunday's ban.
The head of the conservative Les Republicains party, Eric Ciotti, was quick to welcome the move, which he said was long overdue.
The SNPDEN-UNSA union of school principals welcomed the decision, saying what it needed above all was clarity from the government, its national secretary, Didier Georges, told Reuters.
"What we wanted from ministers was: 'yes or no?'" Georges said of the abaya. "We're satisfied because a decision was made."
But many on the left criticised the move, including Clementine Autain, an MP for the hard-left France Insoumise, who criticised what she called the "clothes police" and a move "characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims".
And some academics agreed the move could be counterproductive, all the more as it touched on clothing they said was worn for fashion or identity rather than religion.
"It's going to hurt Muslims in general. They will, once again, feel stigmatised," said sociologist Agnes De Feo, who has been researching French women wearing niqab for the past decade.
"It's really a shame because people will judge these young girls, while it (the abaya) is a teenage expression without consequences."
'IT'S A NORMAL GARMENT'
Twenty-two-years old Djennat, who wears abayas at home, said she could not understand why it was banned.
"It's a long dress, quite loose, it's a normal garment, there is no religious meaning attached to it," she told Reuters. She declined to giver her name because she was training to become a teacher.
In 2004, France banned headscarves in schools and passed a ban on full face veils in public in 2010, angering some in its more than five million-strong Muslim community, and triggering the creation of private Muslim schools, De Feo said.
Less than a year ago, Attal's predecessor, Pap Ndiaye, said he was against banning the abaya, telling the Senate that "the abaya is not easy to define, legally... it would take us to the administrative tribunal, where we would lose".
Daoud Riffi, who teaches Islam studies at the Lille Institute of Political Studies, agreed. "In and of itself, there's no such thing as an Islamic outfit. We need to challenge that myth," he told Reuters.
Riffi said there was a wider fashion trend among female high school students, who buy long dresses and kimonos online.
Both Riffi and De Feo said that to differentiate between fashion and religion could lead to pupils being profiled based on their identity.
(Reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro, Noemie Olive, Tassilo Hummel, Bertrand Boucey, Ingrid Melander;Writing by Juliette JabkhiroEditing by Nick Macfie, Ingrid Melander)