Porc-free lunches in France
A French school forced Jewish and Muslim pupils to wear a coloured disc around their necks during lunchtime Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

A French school is being investigated after it was revealed that it forced its Jewish and Muslim pupils to wear a coloured disc around their necks during lunchtime. City officials have launched a joint investigation into the initiative at the 1,500-student Piedalloues primary school in Auxerre, Burgundy, where 18 children were singled out: children who do not eat pork were asked to wear a red disc while non-meat eaters were given a yellow one.

A Reminder of darkest times

The scheme lasted only one day on 21 September, after local councillor Malika Ounès, of President Nicolas Sarkozy's Les Republicains party, denounced the move. "It's revolting. It reminds you of the darkest times," said Ounès, in reference to the yellow badges Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe were forced to wear to identify and distinguish them. "Practices like this are not acceptable. No one has the right to impose this on children."

Christian Sautier, director of communications in the mayor's office, explained that canteen staff had imposed the rule for one meal, without telling the local authorities. Sautier added it was "an isolated, clumsy and unfortunate initiative" that was halted immediately. The mayor has since launched an investigation into the incident.

Porc-free lunches, a polemical issue

Marine Le Pen against porc-free lunches
Marine Le Pen has told school canteens to stop offering religious alternatives to Muslim children Reuters

The incident comes after Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's hard-right Front National party (FN), said schools in the towns where her party won local elections would not pander to Jewish and Muslim children for whom pork is taboo by offering substitution pork-free meals for lunch.

She defended the decision saying the pork-free arrangements contradicted the country's secular values. "We will not accept any religious demands in school menus," Le Pen told RTL radio at the time. "There is no reason for religion to enter the public sphere, that's the law."

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, there has been a renewed emphasis on upholding the principle of separating religion and the state – a concept called laicïté.

While local authorities are under no obligation to provide alternative menus, the concept of laïcité cannot be used as a reason for refusing alternative menus, according to the Observatoire de la Laïcité, which monitors the respect of laïcité in the country.