Hundreds of France’s Jewish students are finding themselves in an impossible situation. In a country where tests are frequently scheduled for Saturdays and administrators are wary of making accommodations for religion, students are often forced to either violate their commitment to Shabbat observance or fail exams.

This challenge is not new, but Sacha Ghozlan, president of the Union des Etudiants Juifs de France (Union of Jewish Students of France, or UEJF), told The Algemeiner the problem seems to have mushroomed during the past academic year.

“We have had many more students getting in touch with us than in the past,” said Ghozlan, who explained that students appeal to the UEJF for assistance in intervening with teachers and administrators and at times, officials at the Ministry of Education.

Ghozlan traced the resistance shown by French educators for Jewish students’ Sabbath needs to the national law of laïcite (from the term “laity,” meaning lay people or non-clergy), enacted in 1905, which maintains a rigid barrier in France between religion and public life. One is free to practice religion in private, but in public, one is French, a citizen of the republic — not Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

“There’s a misunderstanding of what religion in the public space looks like,” said Ghozlan. “Some deans and teacher think that laïcite means keeping anyone from speaking out about their religion in public, and not that religion is separate from state. They think it means a Jewish student is not allowed to act Jewish.”

State-funded schools are not supposed to schedule tests on major holidays, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and French students of any faith have the legal right to take off three days a year for religious reasons, but Ghozlan said administrators often ignore both of these guidelines.

“For the last two or three years, there has been an increased concern at universities by the fact that religion has been getting more and more attention in public debate, and they have responded by refusing to recognize that students — especially Jewish students — have the right to keep this law,” Ghozlan said. “They fear that if they give Jewish students this, they will ask for more and more.”

With so many students reaching out to the UEJF for help, Ghozlan’s team launched a reporting platform in September 2016 that made it easier for someone to file a request for assistance, and centralised UEJF’s data from the 25 public and private universities where it has student representatives.

This year, UEJF received nearly 200 appeals from students torn between their religion and their education.

Ghozlan said students studying in France would likely always have conflicts with observance, because of laïcite, and that UEJF has no interest in pursuing the creation of a national exemption for Jewish students from taking tests on Shabbat or holidays. He similarly has no expectation or desire for the needs of a minority to be imposed on the French public by, for example, legally prohibiting testing on Saturdays.

But Ghozlan wants French law to be respected and applied, and for teachers to be willing to work with students on a case-by-case basis to accommodate their needs.

“We try to explain to [French officials] that if we can’t both keep our religion and study, there will be an increase of aliyah or an increase in the creation of private Jewish schools — neither of which is good,” said Ghozlan. “Jews should have a place in French universities.”

Jeremie Smadja, UEJF representative at the ESSEC Business School’s Grande-Ecole campus, received a zero on a Saturday exam in his entrepreneurship course this year, his first at university. Smadja appealed to the teacher and the administration to allow him to take the test on some other day, but he was shot down.

“They don’t want to make any distinction for any religion,” Smadja said. “If you can’t make an exam, too bad. I don’t know why they don’t just look at the calendar and not schedule tests for holidays or on Shabbat.”