A photo taken on August 17, 2023 shows French Education Minister Gabriel Attal (C) attending a meeting at the Bourbon high school in Saint-Denis-de-la-Reunion on the first day of school on the French overseas island of La Reunion. AFP
Education Minister Gabriel Attal said Sunday that the long, flowing dresses that originated in the Middle East would no longer be allowed in schools when the new term begins next week because they violate secular laws.
Government spokesman Olivier Veran said it was "obviously" a religious garment and "a political attack, a political sign" which he saw as an act of "proselytising" or trying to convert to Islam.
"School is secular. We say it in a very calm but firm way: it is not the place for that (wearing religious clothing)," he told the BFM TV channel.
Attal said Monday that the government was clear that abayas "did not belong in schools."
"Our schools are being tested. These last few months, violations of our secular rules have considerably increased, particularly with regard to the wearing of religious clothing such as abayas or qamis which have appeared -- and remained -- in some establishments," he told reporters.
Attal's decision to ban abayas has sparked a new debate about France's secular rules and whether they are used to discriminate against the country's large Muslim minority.
A law of March 2004 banned "the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation" in schools.
This includes large Christian crosses, Jewish kippas and Islamic headscarves.
Unlike headscarves, schools had struggled to regulate the wearing of abayas which were seen as being in a grey area.
The government has sided with politicians on the right and far-right who had pushed for an outright ban, arguing that they are part of a wider agenda from Islamists to spread religious practice throughout society.
But politicians on the left and many Muslims see France's secular rules -- known as "laicite" -- as a front used by conservatives for Islamophobic policies.
They say some women choose to wear abayas, or headscarves, to signal their cultural identity, rather than out of religious belief.
Many conservative politicians have pushed in recent years for the ban on the wearing of religious symbols to be widened to universities and even parents accompanying children on their school outings.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen campaigned in last year's presidential election to ban veils from all public streets.
The country's constitution guarantees citizens the right to practice religion freely, but it imposes an obligation on the state and state employees to respect neutrality.
The abaya ban is likely to face a legal appeal and could lead to difficulties for school authorities who will have to decide when a large flowing dress moves from being a personal fashion choice to a religious statement, observers say.