French court overrules ban on non-pork school meals citing 'children's interests'

French court overrules ban on non-pork school meals citing 'children's interests'
A French court has repealed the decision of the mayor of a Burgundy town to scrap an alternative menu for schoolchildren who don’t eat pork. The ruling followed a nearly two-year-long legal battle between the authorities and a Muslim association.

On Monday, an administrative court in Dijon decided in favour of the Muslim Legal Defense League (LDJM), fighting for re-introduction of non-pork meals in Chalon-sur-Saône schools. The judgment said the ban "had not given primary attention, within the spirit of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, to the interests of children."

In March, 2015, Gilles Platret from the right-wing party Les Republicains, came up with the ban on providing substitute dishes for Muslim and Jewish children at schools, saying he promoted the French notion of secularism, separating religious affairs and the state. Later, though, the French national consultative committee on human rights branded it an “erroneous interpretation of the principles of secularism and equality” in 2016.

At the time, the court upheld the controversial move, which earned wide support in the town council, as well as dismay among many, including a former education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who accused it of “taking children hostage.”

Platret, however, argued via his lawyer, that the authorities are not obliged “to provide everyone [with] what they need to exercise their religion,” adding that 40 per cent of children in the town didn’t eat meat and substituted it with extra vegetables, as the Local reported.

READ MORE: Iconic pork sausages banned from Swiss school menus, MPs outraged

The LDJM group that brought the complaint called the removal “discriminatory” and “a violation of freedom of conscience and worship.” Yet, rather than drawing its decision on the religious argument, the Dijon court took into account “the best interests of the child,” stressing that alternative non-pork menu had been offered since 1984 “with no argument whatsoever.”

The town authorities are set to appeal the Monday decision, citing its infringement of a constitutional right to free administration of the communes. The canteens will also keep serving the current menus, as “it is materially impossible for the town of Chalon-sur-Saône to change the operation of a public service in such a short time without risking the continuity of that service.”

Meanwhile, the LDJM praised the outcome as “victory.”

In the past a similar decision had been announced by the mayor of the north-western French town of Sargé-lès-Le Mans, Marcel Mortreau, ordering to stop offering non-pork meals to children at school lunches in 2014. Said to be based on “the principle of Republican neutrality,” the decision sparked an angry response from the parents of 27 students affected by the move.

In Arveyres in south-west France, the commune’s mayor Benoît Gheysens proposed the same measure, citing the costs of supplying alternative dishes and food waste. According to 20 minutes, the mayor and parents angered by his regulation resolved the issue by offering pork meals once a weak instead of two or three times.