French Schools: is secularism the answer?

The Class

Since the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris in January, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s indefatigable and impressive Education Minister, is everywhere. Ushered into the limelight by President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, she is now representing the French state’s official response to a trauma that has triggered a real crisis of national identity. “School,” the 37-year-old minister cried out in the National Assembly a week after the attacks. “School is on the frontline. It will stand firm!” Despite the rumble of approval from both sides of the chamber, the febrility of her tone was hard to miss. And she had good reason to be worried: the three jihadists were French, educated in the schools of the Republic.

Ever since the revolution, when its “Committee for Public Instruction” wrestled control of French schools from the grip of the Catholic Church, “l’Education Nationale” has been the state’s main tool for promoting republican values. Unfortunately, more than two centuries later, the French are deeply divided as to what, precisely, those republican values should be. Many feel that concepts like “liberté, egalité, fraternité” are too vague to be of any use in the multi-ethnic, multi-faith France of today, but that doesn’t stop politicians like Vallaud-Belkacem from reciting the tired old triad like a kind of mantra against growing unease.

The purpose of the Education Minister’s speech was to deplore publicly the reported refusal of some French school children from Muslim backgrounds to observe a minute’s silence in homage to the victims of the attacks. Clearly, France has not come to terms with the reality that was brought to light in 2004 by the “Obin report,” assembled by an inspectorate of the Education Ministry, which alerted the political class to the existence of “closed counter-societies” in France’s poorest suburbs in which “a large number of children of North African origin… perceive themselves as foreign to the national community.” According to the authors of the report, French Muslims referred to two categories: “Us and the French.” “Tell them they’re French,” they went on, “and they’ll reply that this is impossible because they’re Muslim.” When the Obin report was published, the official response was to ban the Muslim headscarf (and other “conspicuous religious symbols”) in schools, add the word “laicité” (secularism) to the “liberty, equality, fraternity” mantra and just chant louder.

“There were too many questions from pupils,” Vallaud-Belkacem said in her speech in the Assembly. “‘Yes, I’m Charlie, but what about the double standards?… Why defend freedom of expression for some and not for others?’ These questions are unbearable.” Unbearable, I realised, not because they expressed a legitimate grievance, but because they showed that the French school system, “which is supposed to transmit values,” had failed in its mission. I’m pretty sure that if I were a Muslim child growing up in France today, I too would be asking “unbearable” questions.

What is this mission, exactly, and what are these values? The answer lies in the national mythology surrounding the idea of liberté. Ever since the foundation of the Third Republic in 1870 and Jules Ferry’s laws on free, mandatory and secular public education, the notion of freedom has been equated in France with emancipation—above all from ignorance, obscurantism and religious belief. It became the state’s business to guarantee that every citizen be equipped with a rigorous, rational education that would offer protection against the dark forces operating outside the sanctuary of “l’école Républicaine,” the most dangerous of which was religion. School was and still is the place where the citizen is “shaped” (formé) in rational thought. Irrational belief systems that thrive in the family and the community have no place in school. Significantly, those who defend the legislation banning the Muslim headscarf argue that the hijab represents the patriarchal will to oppress women and that a ban is therefore justified in the name of republican freedom.

The problem is that not everyone is convinced by such arguments. French Muslims believe that behind the law banning the display in schools of conspicuous religious symbols of all kinds lies a desire to target the headscarf alone. This is why Vallaud-Belkacem’s position is so uncomfortable. After all, this is the woman who, five years ago, co-authored an essay entitled “Visible Plurality and Equal Opportunities,” which argued for the symbolic recognition of France’s ethnic minorities. In it, she praised her political opponent Nicolas Sarkozy, then still president, for his “strong and symbolic decision to surround himself with a government that looked more like society.” She also praised his nomination of Rachida Dati, who comes from a North African Muslim background, to the “regal position” of Minister of Justice. “The symbolic effect of such nominations remains powerful,” she said.

But as Hollande’s Education Minister, Vallaud-Belkacem must now toe the line and express the mood of her government, which, if her use of the word “unbearable” is anything to go by, is verging on the hysterical. “We will not take them lightly,” she told the chamber, referring to the hundred or so anti-republican incidents that school heads had reported to her ministry, 40 of which were passed on to the police or Gendarmerie. Indeed, shortly after the attacks, an eight-year-old schoolboy from Nice, who had the misfortune to admit in class that he was not “Charlie,” was reported to the police by his teacher and charged under a new law against vindicating terrorism (“apologie du terrorisme”) that had been passed in November 2014 in order to provide a legal bulwark against online recruiters for jihad. Questioned by the police, the little boy, named Ahmed, admitted that he’d said he was for the terrorists, and against Charlie Hebdo, because of their cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but that he was not, as the headteacher had affirmed, glad the journalists were dead.

The way Vallaud-Belkacem described the questions of children like Ahmed reflects a disturbingly authoritarian tone that has crept into political discourse in France. When I heard her announce her ministry’s plan for a “grand mobilisation of schools for the promotion of the values of the Republic,” I had to remind myself that I was in modern France and not in Maoist China. Between now and July 2015, she promised, “1,000 hardened teacher trainers will be schooled in secularism (laïcité) and moral and civic education, and deployed across the country.” These “reservists,” as they’re being called, will be armed with “effective, appropriate and hard-hitting tools,” including a series of short films about “the historic struggles for the values of the Republic.” What, I wondered, would these films put in and what would they leave out? By trumpeting the “universal values” of the French Republic, does Vallaud-Belkacem hope to mask the fact that the historic majority in this country is being portrayed as more legitimately “republican” than its more recent arrivals?

How, I wondered, has it come to this? An eight-year-old under arrest, teenage boys across France with no criminal records being denounced to the police by their teachers. In the aftermath of the attacks Vallaud-Belkacem sent a circular to state school principals asking them to encourage debate in the classroom. The goal, as she put it, was to free up discussion among the children (“libérer la parole”). With hindsight, and in the light of all the reports and denunciations that subsequently found their way on to her desk, the minister’s invitation to get the children talking takes on sinister overtones. How has this champion of cultural diversity and lesbian and gay rights, who has so often come under attack herself for her own Moroccan roots, become the main apologist for French state assimilationism?

Vallaud-Belkacem was born in the Moroccan Rif, second in a family of seven children, and was raised from the age of five in one of the poorest immigrant suburbs of the northern city of Amiens, where unemployment is over 50 per cent. She excelled at school, earned a degree in law and was accepted by one of France’s most prestigious graduate schools, the Institute of Political Science in Paris (known as “Sciences Po”). For someone like Hollande, she is a walking advert for the integrationist model and a living argument against the “communitarianism” or multiculturalism that the French see being championed in Britain. Ask most French people what “communitarianism” means to them and they’ll say rejecting the host country and living in closed communities.

Vallaud-Belkacem is brave and gifted. Her extraordinary communication skills have made her the Socialist Party’s main mouthpiece for its newest and most unpopular ideas (including same-sex marriage, which became legal in 2013). She’s Hollande’s best card, the embodiment of what he wants modern France to look like. And she is suitably grateful. When she was appointed to her ministerial job, she thanked “l’école de la République” for “making the little immigrant girl that I was into a minister.”

My own experience of the conformism and ideological uniformity of l’Education Nationale over the past 25 years—two of my children have been through the system and two are still in it—makes me a little suspicious of the Education Minister’s unequivocal advocacy of the system. It’s not as if she herself hasn’t suffered in a society which, while pretending to ignore her ethnicity (legally the concept “ethnic minority” doesn’t exist in France), manages to instrumentalise it by holding her up as model of integration, or else throws it back in her face. When she first became a minister in 2012, her supposed champion, Ségolène Royal, said of her appointment: “If she were called Claudine Dupont, she might not be here. She’d better assume her identity and be proud of it.” And then there’s the casual cruelty of her law professor to whom she confided, in the early 1990s, her secret ambition to try for Sciences Po: “Don’t harbour too many illusions, mademoiselle. You’re not up to scratch.”

If the reaction of my eldest son, Jack, to the French school system of the 1990s is anything to go by, revenge can be a powerful driver of ambition. Labelled around the age of eight as “en echec scolaire,” “failing at school,” and endlessly threatened with being made to repeat a year, Jack lived in a state of constant anxiety as a child. One of those little boys who oscillate between the daydreamer and the frenetically energised, he struggled through school until he was 17, when he finally left to study for his baccalaureate by correspondence. He was later accepted by the Sorbonne and earned a masters in philosophy, but he still feels that l’Education Nationale stole his childhood.

“Perhaps we’d like to imagine the killers as irredeemable little psychopaths in the making, but I have yet to hear convincing evidence of that.”

He describes republican schooling in his day as “violent, in that it was basically a regime of fear and humiliation.” He recalls the punishments (children were regularly forced to write lines, despite the fact that pensums had been formally proscribed by ministerial degree in 1890), the degrading rituals (teachers often chose to read out pupils’ marks in descending order), the quick and brutal pigeonholing (the school psychologist’s evaluation could make or break a child’s reputation) and the competitive divide-and-rule atmosphere that was maintained in the classroom. Apparently this kind of “poisonous pedagogy” can still be found in France’s public schools today. According to the lawyer of eight-year-old Ahmed, after the Charlie Hebdo incident in the classroom he was sent to the headteacher who lost his temper, hit him three times over the head, put him in the corner and then refused to give him his diabetes medicine. By the time the child’s statement was made public, Vallaud-Belkacem had already taken the school’s side.

When he saw the video of Ahmed’s statement, Jack sent me an email: “Gives a good idea of what’s inside the social pressure cooker.” Thinking of that little boy in the police station and the other young Muslims who have been forced to appear handcuffed before magistrates, I find myself wondering who the three killers, Said and Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, were as schoolboys.

Perhaps we’d like to imagine them as irredeemable little psychopaths in the making, but I have yet to hear convincing evidence of that. A close friend of the Coulibaly family described Amedy as having “always had an enormous need to belong. At the Collège Jean-Vilar [his secondary school], his schooling was a complete mess. He met neither the men nor the books he should have.” The French-born son of Malian parents, he was the only boy in a family of 10 children. He was encouraged at school to follow a vocational training, but harboured illusions of passing the more prestigious bac. He is said to have “changed suddenly aged 17,” when he took up drug dealing and armed robbery. Perhaps by then it had become clear to him that he would never fulfil his ambitions. Amedy was sent to prison, where he was, as we now know, recruited to the jihad. The prison’s psychiatrist spoke of “an immature and psychopathic personality with poor powers of introspection.”

Similarly with the Kouachi brothers, there has been little attempt to understand what might have made them so
vulnerable to radicalisation. There’s the statement given to the press by the Director of the Georges Pompidou Foundation home where social services placed the brothers as children, after the deaths of both their parents: “We’re all shocked because we know these youths. It’s hard to imagine these youths, who were perfectly integrated, could deliberately kill like that… During their time with us they never posed any behavioural problems.” Then there’s the statement from another “youth” who was close to the brothers for the six years that they spent in the centre: “The George Pompidou [home] wasn’t very cool… How can I describe it? It was very violent. We fought a lot among ourselves. Some care workers were scared of us. I heard Patrick Fournier, the Director, saying that everything was fine. Not exactly true!”

Of course, the killers’ “real natures” will forever remain a matter of speculation, but the glaring discrepancy between these two portraits does raise questions. Jack’s perception of the “violence” of the school system is linked to the persistent pressure exerted on him by teachers and psychiatrists to conform. I first became aware of this pressure when Jack was four and his kindergarten teacher tore up his drawing because he was still representing human figures as “hommes têtards” (people with heads, legs and arms but no bodies), a sign, to her, of his “regressive tendencies.” This normative pressure in French society makes its pre-eminent citizens, its experts of all kinds, very quick to judge. So it is with a certain amount of scepticism that I read Coulibalay’s psychiatric report: “A very deficient moral sense… a desire for omnipotence.”

Compare it to the account given by the family friend: “When he got out of prison I found him much more shut off, bitter. But he wasn’t someone who made you scared. For me, he was above all a youth who’d been punished a lot.”

One of the joys of the rousing manifestations of national solidarity in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris was that they seemed to express a very real spirit of tolerance. As I marched with my daughter through the streets of Paris on that cold, crisp January afternoon, I was struck by the messages I heard in the chants—“I am Charlie! I am a Muslim! I am a Jew!”—and on many of the banners: “In mourning; not at war.” The message politicians took away from these demonstrations was that something had to change and so it was that, soon afterwards, Vallaud-Belacem was standing on the podium of the National Assembly calling for that “general mobilisation” to reduce “the fractures” in French society and, as Valls had promised, “draw lessons from what isn’t working.”

The problem is that the old mantras are still being chanted and no lessons are being drawn. While Valls dared to say in public, two weeks after the attacks, that there was “a territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” in France, and even used the taboo word “ghetto” to describe the banlieues (deprived suburbs), the President remains in denial. “The Republic recognises all her children,” he said piously. “Wherever they’re born, or wherever they live. It’s her duty to make sure that each of her children can succeed in life without feeling segregated, separated, discriminated against, ignored, because he or she comes from a given estate or quartier.” The crucial question, he went on, is: “Do we have the capacity to live together?”

None of this feels like drawing lessons. Patrick Kanner, Hollande’s Minister for Towns, Youth and Sport, who heads an inter-ministerial project to reduce inequality in the suburbs, told Le Figaro recently that he was “not afraid” of the idea of “positive” (or affirmative) action to combat discrimination, another taboo concept in France. Talking of the “service civique,” a programme to help young job seekers get a foothold on the employment ladder, Kanner said: “There’s five times more demand than there are places available on the programme. We have to make sure that 100 per cent of the applications from the suburbs are honoured. The places must go first to them.” Hollande quickly made it clear that he did not agree with his minister: “I myself don’t recognise any communities. I say that every citizen of the Republic has the rights and the same obligations.”

You may ask why France could bring itself to introduce its highly effective parity laws to boost the number of women in parliament (now, 15 years later, ahead of the United Kingdom) but then displays an allergic reaction every time anyone raises the possibility of positive action to fight racism. The reason given is that the French are so attached to the ideal of equality before the law that they perceive any departure from that principle—including identifying someone as belonging to an ethnic minority—as a form of injustice. Given the culture of privileges and “régimes spéciaux” that pervades the French labour market, this looks either hypocritical or plain delusional.

One proposal has been to make it possible to gather data on France’s ethnic minorities in order better to combat racial inequality. French egalitarianism doesn’t recognise the concept of ethnicity, so it’s still impossible to assemble public statistics on ethnic minorities here. Last month, Hollande rejected the idea of changing that law: “There will be those who are for and those who are against, those who say, it’s discriminating to put certain people on certain lists who will have rights that others won’t have. The French will be considered according to their colour, their origins, their neighbourhood? No. We can see what’s happening according to where people live. No need for statistics on ethnicity. Look at where many of your compatriots live and you’ll see the problems of unemployment, education, success, even the ability to start a business.”

As is often the case in France, there’s a gap here between the ideal and the reality. Despite the official line, there are people gathering statistics with the aim of fighting discrimination. L’Observatoire des inégalités (Inequality Watch), an organisation based in Tours, is an online data-gathering resource. One of the consequences of the state’s refusal to acknowledge ethnicity as a component of identity is that ethnic minorities in France have few platforms on which to express themselves. Today, grassroots movements are working to remedy this. During the riots that erupted in the banlieues in 2005, the Bondy Blog was set up by a group of Swiss journalists who were interested in hearing what the inhabitants of Bondy, one of the burning suburbs northeast of Paris, might have to say about their situation. Today the Bondy Blog is a thriving online magazine that relays news from France’s previously voiceless immigrant suburbs. Behind these initiatives is a new generation of French people who believe, like the Martinican writer and academic Édouard Glissant, that identity in the modern world is “relational” rather than “fixed.”

Despite what Hollande says about the Republic recognising all children as equal, there is a chronic problem of educational inequality in France and it often follows ethnic lines. In its Survey of Adult Skills, the OECD found that France’s education system, while it produces an impressive intellectual elite, leaves a large proportion of its adult population barely able to read: 21.6 per cent of those surveyed in France scored the lowest level of literacy, compared to 15.5 per cent across 24 other countries. In a culture that puts such emphasis on academic achievement, the stigma of failure is, of course, that much greater. The OECD’s final report said of France: “The scores for French people [in literacy and numeracy] vary considerably according to training levels and social background, and this is to a far greater degree than the average across participating countries. The differences in literacy standards between individuals born in France and those who were born abroad are much greater than the average across participating countries.”

Last month I went to our local primary school in Paris to meet my 10-year-old son’s new teacher. Joseph had just joined her class of 27, having moved from a tiny village school in the Cevennes mountains, one of the wildest and least populated areas of France, where he had, for the past seven years, been taught in classes of 10. One of the appeals of this rural school was that most of the time it seemed to elude the reach of “l’Education Nationale.”

When I asked the new teacher if she ever praised the children, she pulled out four little stamps from a drawer and set them in a line on her desk. “I got them from Canada,” she said, with a guilty smile. “They’re smileys. One for good work, one for hard work, one for tidy work. And this one, this is their favourite, the smiley kitty, for big improvement!” Today, it seems that pressure is growing in France to place the individual needs of the child at the heart of the school system. For the past two years there has been considerable debate surrounding the wisdom of the “out of 20” marking system in primary schools, which many feel works for “good” students, but discourages or even “breaks” children who are struggling.

On the ground, more and more primary school teachers are refusing to give marks despite the President’s known attachment to them: “Marks are important as a means of keeping families informed,” he said recently. “Of course Hollande likes the marking system,” says Christian Chevalier, Secretary General of the teacher’s union, UNSA. “Hollande is himself a pure product of the marking system and selective sorting.” As for poor, beleaguered Vallaud-Belkacen—who last November said of an experimental secondary school in the Gers which had abandoned all marks: “I vigorously support the pedagogic innovations that come from the field”—she has now chosen her camp. Eager, perhaps, to hold on to her job as head of a ministry with a notoriously revolving door, she recently came out against any reform to the existing system.

The old guard in France, for whom l’Ecole de la République is still an extremely useful social tool, continues to resist grassroots movements that press for a more tolerant, accepting model. I think of the French state’s continuing refusal to accept the diversity—psychological, religious and cultural—of its citizens; I recall my own child’s indignation and the sense of injustice felt by those French Muslim girls being forced to leave their headscarves at home; the mute rage of all those teenage Muslim boys being told that they won’t succeed but they must conform—and I wonder how long the edifice will hold.

This piece was published in Prospect in March, 2015

One thought on “French Schools: is secularism the answer?

  1. While I am quite sympathetic to the main thesis of the need to recognize and include diversity, more specific, muslims, the problem with this article lies in the mixing of two separate problems. Yes, France has a discrimination problem, not just in schools but in society and Muslims feel excluded. But France’s education system as far as the classroom’s “humiliation” and “fear”, its poisonous pedagogical tactics is something closer to one size fits all. Many French students face the same fear and humiliation; it’s not reserved for Muslims. Mixing the discrimination against Muslims by describing it along with the business as usual of French education leaves the reader with the impression that this system is directed specifically at Muslims and is the main reason for Muslim children becoming terrorists. I might also add that in many schools (and I’m talking in France Profonde) teachers are threatened by parents and in schools in Provence some teachers have actually been physically accosted by belligerent parents.
    Finally while I agree that Muslims face greater discrimination because of the fear of terrorism, I have also seen the danger when religion-whether it is christian, islam or Judiaism– is not to be overlooked. Zealots of all religions threaten our freedom and the idea of laicité applied across the board is one way to protect agains that danger.

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