The election of a Catholic priest as a university president has been criticised as a breach of France’s strict separation of the church and state.
However, his appointment has been attacked by some teaching unions, which say his service as a Catholic priest should disqualify him from public office. Professor Deneken was ordained in the 1980s and was a parish priest from 1985 until 2000, while also working at the university since 1989.
“This goes completely against the French Republican principle that public services should be completely neutral,” said a statement released by the SNESUP higher education union, according to France 24.
“We are extremely concerned about the candidacy of a theologian and priest to the head of the University of Strasbourg,” it added.
Strasbourg, a part of Alsace, in eastern France, has a special exemption from a 1905 law which separates church and state as it was then part of Germany following the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.
However, this exemption from the law, which prohibits the display of religious clothing or symbols on campus, has not satisfied some critics, France 24 said.
“Just because it isn’t illegal, doesn’t mean that it is desirable,” SNESUP spokesman Pascal Maillard told French newspaper Le Monde.
His opponent in the presidential election, political science professor Hélène Michel, had also said that “fears about the reputation of the university, and the direction of research conducted here, are perfectly legitimate” in light of Professor Deneken’s former job.
“Even if Michel Deneken is no longer a parish priest, one is still a priest for life, and subject to the authority of the Church” she told Le Monde.
Professor Deneken, who has served as interim president since September, has said that “universities are places where matters of faith should never interfere with teaching or research, and should always respect the laws of the Republic and the ethics of education.”
Professor Deneken replaces Alain Beretz, who resigned to become France’s head of research and innovation, and has been supported by the local AFGES students' union, which said his religious status had “never been a problem, and we don’t see how it could be."