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France to end contract with biggest Muslim high school amid fears of wider crackdown

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France is to end funding for its biggest Muslim high school on the grounds of administrative failures and questionable teaching practices.

A view shows the entrance of the Averroes high school, the biggest Muslim private high school in the country, in Lille, northern France, December 11, 2023. Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

France is to end funding for its biggest Muslim high school on the grounds of administrative failures and questionable teaching practices, a local official said on Monday, the latest in what some rights groups say is a wider crackdown on Muslims.

Private school Averroes, the first Muslim high school to open in mainland France in 2003 in the northern city of Lille, has more than 800 pupils and has been under contract with the state since 2008. Pupils follow the regular French curriculum, and are also offered religion classes.

But in an October report seen by Reuters, the interior ministry's local office said the school was suffering from administrative and financial dysfunction and that some teaching did not align with French republican values.

The interior ministry's local office declined to provide more details on the contract termination.

   Many Muslims feel France - home to the largest Muslim population in Europe - has become more hostile towards them, especially after France suffered a string of deadly jihadist attacks in 2015.

In September, the education minister banned the abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robe worn by some Muslim women, in public schools. Last year, a deportation order was given to an imam from the same area of northern France.

Averroes headmaster Eric Dufour said he had yet to receive notification from the interior ministry's local office, but that the school intended to challenge the decision in administrative court.

"When it comes to republican values, we do more than any other school," Dufour told Reuters last week in Lille, after he had been summoned to an education committee meeting in late November that made him fear the decision to end the school's contract was coming.

And a 2020 education ministry inspection report that Reuters reviewed said that "nothing in the observations ... allows (us) to think teaching practices don't respect republican values".

The ministry didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.

Headmaster Dufour said that without public funding, the school would be unable to meet its budget needs.

"We would have to double fees for every family to hold on, which is out of the question," he said.

Mohamed Daoudi said the main reason he chose Averroes for his 12-year-old son was its excellent results, and that he and other parents felt the interior ministry local office's decision was an injustice.

"It's really a witch-hunt," Daoudi said. "It's an injustice doubled with an insult."

A project director in the tech industry, Daoudi said he had lived abroad for 15 years and was ready to leave again if the school were to close.

"I would rather put my kids in public school in Canada," he said.

He added that he felt like it was part of a wider crackdown on France's Muslim minority. "We do everything by the book, and we are still being pestered."

Reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro, editing by Nick Macfie

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