Can secular classrooms heal France’s social divisions?

GRIGNY, France — Leïla Simon tries to quiet a classroom of 26 rambunctious 13-year-olds in this impoverished suburb south of Paris. The shopping center outside the train station is abandoned, but the adjacent parking lot is packed. “When the center shut down, they figured they’d keep the parking lot—it’s the only one around,” explained Simon, 30, who has been commuting here from Paris for the past five years to teach at the Pablo Neruda middle school. “But that’s really all that’s left here” besides the cramped high-rise projects where nearly all her students live, often six to a one-bedroom apartment.

Simon, who recently cut her dark hair short—edgy and jagged—is sweet and casual; she has a hard time being strict with her students, and on multiple occasions a smile sneaks through her attempted reprimands.

“We have a special lesson today,” she tells the rowdy teenagers, raising her voice over their chatter and they squirm uncontrollably in their seats. It’s a rainy Friday and her students would prefer to be anywhere but their French class. Things quiet down.

The day’s atypical lesson would center on a controversy that erupted in Ploërmel, a small town in the region of Brittany, over a statue of a cross that has dominated a public square since 2006. A government commission recently ordered that it be taken down in the name of laïcité, the state policy of secularism. The move prompted outrage among Ploërmel’s residents, who argue that Christianity is part of their town’s cultural history. The incident gave rise to a hashtag on Twitter, #montretacroix, or #showyourcross, diffused largely by Christians who argue that an extreme version of laïcité is stifling their freedom of expression. Simon hands out copies of an article about the issue.

 


 

It’s a refreshing deviation from the drone of contemporary debates over laïcité, which tend to center ad nauseam on Islam. But wade briefly into the tweets brandishing #montretacroix and the link re-emerges. The vast majority are from right-wing Christians who contend that removing the cross is part of what they see as an ongoing capitulation to an increasingly dominant Islam that is erasing France’s Catholic roots. Several tweets contrasted images of the peaceful and picturesque square in Ploërmel with photographs of Muslim crowds praying in the streets of French cities. “Which seems more dangerous?” one read, alleging a double-standard in the principle’s application—part of the idea that France is “too lax” with its Muslim community.

Neutral spaces for equality

Luckily, Simon’s class didn’t have the chance to see the controversy’s troubling evolution on social media, and so her lesson can proceed as planned—as a starting point for a larger discussion about laïcité. She invites her students, the vast majority of whom are either from immigrant backgrounds or immigrants themselves, to consider the issue dividing residents of Ploërmel. Should the cross be taken down in the name of laïcité? Would doing so be consistent with the way laïcité manifests itself in their own lives—and notably, in the context of their school, where all ostensible religious signs are banned?

“Let’s be realistic, we’re in France,” a student says. “Are they going to take down the Notre Dame too?”

“Putting a cross on a public square is disrespectful to other religions,” a girl says, between glancing at her pocket mirror to reapply lip-gloss (Simon eventually confiscates the mirror). “Keeping your religion to yourself makes us all equal, and that’s why we don’t wear religious signs at school.”

A boy, Yaël, chimes in from across the room. “But let’s be realistic, we’re in France,” he says, rolling his eyes. “We have Christmas vacation. Are they going to take down the Notre Dame too?”

A lively and heated discussion ensues, but more often than not, the students agree that their school is a better place when their classmates leave their religious beliefs at home. “We’re here together,” a boy with thick glasses says. “We can practice our religion at home.” Others nod. But Salima, who was born in Morocco and came to France by way of Spain, disagrees. “I have to take my veil off when I enter the school—I don’t think it’s good to be cut off from our religion.”

“But when people see a veil they think of terrorists!” a boy across the room cries. The classroom erupts in laughter.

“You see? If we all came to school with religious symbols, we’d fight,” Yaël concludes. “There are already conflicts now that we’re just talking about our religions. This is supposed to be a neutral space, where we’re all equal.”

 

Grigny

 

The students are shocked when I mention that there is no such ban in the United States, the United Kingdom and a host of other countries. The idea that laïcité permits a so-called neutral classroom, where students are equal and free from external influences, has been routinely evoked during the interviews I’ve conducted since mid-September. After all, the pillars of the French Republic—freedom, liberty and fraternity—are engraved on the façade of public schools here, and many see laïcité as the glue that holds those principles together.

But as the majority of the students echo Yaël’s support for an equal, neutral space, one isn’t convinced. “There is no equality in France,” she says. “Seriously, what equality? We’re not equal here anyway.”

The disparity between the reality in areas like Grigny and the imagined equality that exists under the banner of a secular republic is glaring, something I touched on in my last newsletter. But many of the public school teachers I’ve met haven’t resigned themselves to that cynicism, even when their students reject or challenge the values they preach. And while that isn’t the norm, the social climate since 2015 has been tense, and some students, particularly Muslims, are on edge. They are well aware of how their community is depicted in the media and the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes—not to mention the escalating hysteria over Islamic dress, notably with last summer’s “burkini ban,” which former Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended even after international ridicule.

The disparity between the reality in areas like Grigny and the imagined equality that exists under the banner of a secular republic is glaring.

That’s why some teachers didn’t find it surprising following the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 that certain students refused to take part in a national moment of silence. Such incidents, which were isolated but exaggerated by the media and government, prompted a renewed push to promote republican and laïque values in public schools. “I don’t think, at least in my middle school, we tried to impose anything on the students,” Simon told me over coffees in the 11th arrondissement of Paris where we both live, under an hour away but worlds apart from Grigny. “But it’s clear that, depending on how the teacher approached it, you’re forcing a set of national ideas on students who are already questioning their own rapport with France.” And while it’s not the norm, she recognizes that some days, the students seem “against her,” or see her as “the white teacher who lives in Paris.”

“Obviously if we see schools as little factories for citizens where we’re all equal, that would be false,” she said, pointing to the fact that her school is largely non-white, and that a significant number of the families live below the poverty line.

But while it would be deceptive to promote laïcité as some magic wand, Simon thinks it has its place in the classroom. “We’re there to learn together, not voice our personal beliefs. There’s a national curriculum.”

 

Lycée Porte Océane in Le Havre

 

Grasping for utopia?

Some teachers in difficult areas hold laïcité in even higher esteem. Edward Barka, a philosophy teacher in the port town of Le Havre, in the northern region of Normandy, goes so far as to say it “makes coexistence possible for everyone.” I spent three days at the high school where he teaches, Lycée Porte Océane, where the vast majority of students are of North African origin and from poor neighborhoods. Many struggle academically, and the school offers both a traditional curriculum and a professional track, in which students, some older than 18, can learn technical and career skills. When students in his philosophy class refused to participate in the moment of silence, or said that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo “had it coming,” he said, “it was clear that we needed to reiterate what it meant to be at a laïque school, and that we needed to better train teachers on how to do so,” because many of his students “confused the demands of their religion with those of the republic.”

Barka, in his mid-40s, is animated and trim. His mind is visibly working while he answers my questions, but his responses are articulate, clear, and devoid of any verbal ticks.

It’s no accident the highly centralized school system has been a focal point of contemporary debates over laïcité. Long seen as an incubator of national identity, it has only grown in importance amid a national panic over social cohesion and what it means to be French. Many of the teachers I’ve interviewed regularly describe themselves as “employees of the national education system” and refer to the education minister as “my minister,” even if they don’t believe they need to implement government orders verbatim.

If our students were better integrated economically, socially, they wouldn’t have to seek outside convictions as a refuge

“To see how the kids react, with a sort of primary loyalty, a visceral defense, of what their parents are, or what the imam says, makes them take what we say as an attack,” Barka says, referring to his lessons on the importance and history of laïcité. “They say, ‘you’re only telling us this because we’re Muslim.’” In that context, he believes that teaching the centrality of laïcité to equal citizenship has gained new significance; his students’ attitudes are, perhaps, not unrelated to the kind of sentiments that have driven many French nationals to radicalize. As a public school teacher, he sees his role as critical for their protection—from radicalization, extremism and from being left behind.

But he also recognizes that although he can do his best to promote his vision of laïcité, the problem is bigger than he, and not exclusively about religion. “If our students were better integrated economically, socially, they wouldn’t have to seek outside convictions as a refuge,” suggesting that, when students invoke Islam against his attempts to teach laïcité, they’re reacting to a larger sense of feeling marginalized.

Of course the narrative around laïcité has strayed from its original meaning, he adds, with some using it as a tool for discrimination and others defending a more open version—“your American or Anglo-Saxon ‘multicultural model.’” And he agrees that its politicization has deepened since the series of attacks in January 2015. But the concept itself remains sound. After all, he says, raising his eyebrows, “we can’t ignore that it wasn’t Buddhists or Christians that killed journalists, or hundreds of young people—it was Muslims.” That contrasts with the views of students I’ve spoken to who identify as Muslim, the vast majority of whom have argued that the terrorists behind the attacks at the Bataclan and in Nice only pretended to adhere to the faith, precipitating widespread faulty “amalgams” between Islam and terrorism in the national conversation.

 

High-rise projects in Bobigny, in the department of Seine-Saint-Dénis

 

At one point, Barka grabbed a piece of paper and drew a circle, perhaps taking my follow-up questions as an indication that I didn’t quite get it. “In this space, we’re neutral,” he looked up, making sure I understood, “we can coexist.” I nodded. “Then, we have all of the individual religions on the outside,” he said, drawing smaller circles around the neutral center. “But they can’t enter into the center circle—that’s what laïcité guarantees; it can bring us all together.” Isn’t that a utopia? I asked. He shook his head and explained his diagram a second time. He didn’t realize, but he had drawn a flower.

I wondered whether, at its core, the war over interpretations of laïcité boils down to a conversation about the inevitable failure of democratic ideals—the gaping disparity between what a nation promises and how a segment of its population lives. What does he mean by a “neutral” space—neutral for whom, and on whose terms? Can that imagined neutrality accommodate the emotionally and politically charged history of Muslim immigration to France, from the post-colonial era to today? Even when latent colonial racism and a cultural aversion to religion have created a toxic climate that recent terror attacks have only deepened?

Muslim identity in the secular Republic

But it would be overly simplistic to trace the debate along racial lines, positioning whites on one side and North African immigrants, and their French-citizen children, on the other. I met Fatiha Boudjahlat in a café by the Gare de Montparnasse in southern Paris. A self-described feminist activist, she teaches at a public middle school in Toulouse, where she is also the state-appointed référent laïcité—a sort of referee for all things related to laïcité that might emerge. She’s welcomes me warmly, but her tone is firm, passionate and often aggressive. “I’m very sensitive to the fact that there has been a regression in gender equality in France, especially in difficult areas,” she says, noting that she herself grew up in a rough majority-immigrant neighborhood. “There is a questioning of the principal of laïcité,” a growing religiosity that she didn’t grow up with, most evident in the rising number of girls wearing the headscarf. It’s worth noting that, while her name reveals her origins, she doesn’t mention them—or the fact that she is a practicing Muslim—until about 40 minutes into the conversation.

Boudjahlat sees the public school system as “a sacred place that must be protected” from outside influences, and worries that external forces have recently taken hold of some of her students. She offered a host of anecdotes, from students who say during civics lessons that “I’m not French, I’m Muslim!”—a conviction several other teachers have recounted to me—or girls who bring what she describes as “fake doctor’s notes that describe an allergy to chlorine,” to avoid participating in required swimming lessons. “If we want to educate girls, if we want to show them that they have the same rights as boys, that they can be ambitious like boys—it’s up to schools,” she says, raising her voice and adding that, “where the state pays for you, the law is superior to religion.”

 

The teacher’s lounge at Lycée Jean Macé, in Vitry-sur-Seine. The sign reads: “No to austerity, raise salaries!”

 

She also worries that headscarves are becoming more common. “I didn’t grow up with it, especially among young girls” she says. Now it’s everywhere, polluting Muslim girls’ chances for equal rights in a country where they could otherwise have them—a capitulation, she contends, to their fathers, brothers, the men in their neighborhoods and the general patriarchy, all of whom promote a contagious idea of female purity. “We’re talking about adolescents. If one girl comes to school with the veil, they all will,” she says. “It’s not a simple piece of fabric on your head—it’s a form of religiosity that’s incompatible with scholastic obligations in France.”

For Boudjahlat, the headscarf’s new visibility is the product of a growing religiosity in certain areas—the underserved neighborhoods where, she says, the social order is shaped by a certain vision of Islam, not laïcité. But I’ve learned that everyone has a theory about why the headscarf has become more common over the past several decades in France, where the majority of Muslims are of North African descent. When I suggested the notion of imposed dress to Marwan Mohammed, the outgoing director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France—we met at the group’s offices, the location of which I was asked to keep confidential due to routine vandalism—he laughed at the idea “that the headscarf impinges on personal freedoms, and so ‘we’ need to help ‘them’”—a narrative he says echoes colonial rhetoric. “This idea that women are forced to wear the headscarf, as if it’s public knowledge, when that’s really not the case.” Some parents actually discourage their daughters to do so, fearing they would face discrimination in the workplace, he adds. A human rights discourse that says “we’ll exclude these girls from schools in order to help them” is “beyond insane,” he says.

Generation gap

A generational gap reflected by girls deciding to wear the headscarf despite their parents’ wishes touches on another theme central to how laïcité plays out for young French Muslims: integration. Parallel to a religious explanation—that rising religiosity in underserved areas has driven more girls to wear the headscarf—another rationale relates to identity, or rebellion, in which the veil becomes a social or political response to systematic discrimination. “This young generation often rejects its parents’ desire to be discrete,” M’hammed Henniche, the president of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis, explained, recalling that, when he immigrated to France decades ago, “only the mothers and grandmothers wore the headscarf, and even that was rare.”

Although Henniche is the director of an Islamic organization in an area that is majority-Muslim by many estimates, even he insisted on what he sees as the importance of being “subtle”: ordering fish rather than demanding halal, juice instead of a beer—the stuff of quiet assimilation. “That’s lost on today’s youth,” he says. “Take the little sister or little brother who says to herself, ‘my older brother, my father, did everything to integrate—alcohol, pork, you name it—and it brought them nothing, no career, no equality. Me,” he adds, shifting his tone to mimic a teenager, “‘I was born here, I’m a French citizen. Why do I have to play that same game of integration? I’ll do the inverse.’ And so these kids are in the presentation of it all, not the faith.”

He grew exasperated describing the trend. “This isn’t a soft, calm identity—many young people have adopted an aggressive practice. Why can’t we be discrete?”

Henniche opposes the law banning religious signs in public institutions because he thinks it’s excessive and divisive. He’s worried that it prompted the creation of many private Muslim schools since its passage in 2004 (the statistics on that trend are murky). That’s “hardly doing a service to laïcité,” he says, and sows the very “communitarism” that so many in this country fear. Curiously, his preference for subtlety isn’t drastically different from the neutral space that Barka outlined above. Well aware that laïcité is being deployed against Muslims, Henniche doesn’t want his community to “fall in the trap,” likening the way certain figures in France have twisted laïcité to the way terrorists have manipulated Islam.

‘I was born here, I’m a French citizen. Why do I have to play the game of integration?’

It’s clear, though, that an identity-driven youth rebellion can’t be cleanly disentangled from rising religiosity, especially at a moment when terrorism and jihad have become so deeply ingrained in the French public discourse, and, often, inaccurately assigned to the country’s Muslim communities. Boudjahlat mentioned that Mohammed Merah, the French national who killed seven people, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, “has become a star in his home neighborhood. For a lot of kids in that area, once you mention Islam, they stop thinking—they say they’re Muslim, not French, but it’s not about religion.”

Still, between the manipulation of laïcité on the one hand and efforts to use it as a unifying mechanism on the other, there is a widespread sense that the concept remains important for French society. “There is something to be said about trying to teach what laïcité actually means,” Marwan, of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, told me, stressing that his organization has deployed the original 1905 law separating Church and state in France to push back against the discriminatory potential of the 2004 law on religious symbols. “It means that if people were educated about the law, we could avoid its misuse.”

Henniche, too, wants to disassociate laïcité from anti-Muslim sentiment. “Young people see laïcité as an aggression, a denial of their beliefs, the idea that they’re not French, that they’re rejected,” he says. “And that’s one of the ways that people get pushed toward radicalization.” He wants to tell young Muslims in France that laïcité isn’t designed to make them invisible, but he fears that it has been taken too far in the wrong direction.

That fear is a common one, and there are a host of actors, from teachers and activists to associations and government agencies, trying to break through the noise—the “total nonsense justified in the name of laïcité,” as Henniche says—and use it as a productive, unifying force in an increasingly fragmented France. I’ll look at some of their efforts, and the challenges they face, in next month’s newsletter.

About the Author

Karina Piser’s research will explore measures to promote French secularism in public high schools in immigrant-heavy areas. Beginning in suburbs of Paris, she will interview students, teachers, administrators, and education-policy practitioners to better understand how the government is targeting schools to improve social cohesion in the aftermath of the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks. Prior to receiving the ICWA fellowship, Karina was an editor at World Politics Review, and has previously held positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights in Tunis, Tunisia. She holds a master’s degree from Sciences Po Paris, and has written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and World Politics Review, among other publications.