French President, Francois Hollande voiced his support for his education minister who wrote a controversial letter urging Catholic schools to avoid bringing the issue of equal marriage into the classroom.

Francois Hollande, and other political heavyweights, voiced their support of education minister, Vincent Peillon, who wrote a letter warning Catholic schools that they should not involve their students in the debate over marriage equalty.

In a letter date 4 January Mr Peillon, wrote that he thought those involved in the debate over equal marriage should not raise the issue with students, reports France24. He wrote:

“It doesn’t seem appropriate to bring the debate over equal marriage rights into schools,

“I have the deepest respect for the Catholic school system. But, the institution, which is under contract with the state, must respect the principle that everyone has the right to a neutral and free thought.

“We must never forget that we are dealing with young people and that attempted suicides are five times higher among teenagers who realise they are homosexual than others.”

The education minister was responding to a letter sent by Eric de Labarre, secretary-general of France’s Catholic school system, to 8,300 school heads, which encouraged schools to allow everyone to make an “informed decision” on the issue. Mr de Labarre wrote:

“Every primary and secondary school should take the appropriate steps to ensure everyone has the freedom to make an informed decision over the choices the government is considering today.”

Eric de Labarre also went on to respond to the education minister’s letter. He said:

“To organise a debate is not a violation of free thought. On what grounds can we ban someone from expressing a diverging or dissident opinion? Catholic schools are defined by their relative autonomy, which is also one of their strengths.”

Christine Boutin, founder and head of France’s centre-right Christian Democrat Party, said she thought the letter from the education minister showed the Catholic school system in unfair light. She said:

“It’s as if private schools were unconcerned with the education or respect of a child.” Going on to discuss a recent visit government spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem made to a public school, encouraging students to speak about the fight against homophobia, Ms Boutin said:

“So, according to the minister of education, there are two different standards: it is okay [to discuss the issue] in public schools but not in private ones.”

Faced with mounting criticism for the education minister’s letter, President Hollande told reporters on Friday that both private and public schools should stick to neutrality. He said:

“Secularism is a Republican value,” he said. “We have to make sure that all ways of thinking are respected and that all religions can be practiced. But, we also have to [respect] the fact that we all live in the same place, and that the state, as well as both private and public educational institutions, adheres to a principle called neutrality.”

Former culture, as well as education minister, Jack Lang, also came to the defence of Mr Peillon, saying:

“It’s not unusual for a minister to highlight, in one way or another, the importance of neutrality,” Mr Lang said. “As a French citizen, I would be overjoyed if the Catholic school system respected the rules Vincent Peillon has reminded them of.”

In early November, French President Francois Hollande’s government approved a bill to legalise equal marriage and allow gay couples to adopt.

In late December thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Paris, in support of the government’s decision. 

Despite some opposition to the bill, which was brought in by President Hollande’s Socialist government, the party holds a strong majority, and the legislation is expected to pass.

On Friday it was revealed that more than two thirds of French people would like a referendum on marriage equality and adoption rights for same-sex couples.

The government is set to consider the bill later this month, and both supporters and those opposed to the legislation are set to demonstrate later in January.