France Is Proud Of Its Secularism. But Struggles Grow In This Approach To Faith, School, Integration

Students pray during recess in the mosque at Ibn Khaldoun, a private Muslim school, in Marseille, southern France, Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
Students pray during recess in the mosque at Ibn Khaldoun, a private Muslim school, in Marseille, southern France, Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
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MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Brought into the international spotlight by the ban on hijabs for French athletes at the upcoming Paris Olympics, France’s unique approach to “laïcité” — loosely translated as “secularism” — has been increasingly stirring controversy from schools to sports fields across the country.

The struggle cuts to the core of how France approaches not only the place of religion in public life, but also the integration of its mostly immigrant-origin Muslim population, Western Europe’s largest.

Perhaps the most contested ground is public schools, where visible signs of faith are barred under policies seeking to foster a shared sense of national unity. That includes the headscarves some Muslim women want to wear for piety and modesty, even as others fight them as a symbol of oppression.

“It has become a privilege to be allowed to practice our religion,” said Majda Ould Ibbat, who was considering leaving Marseille, France’s second-largest city, until she discovered a private Muslim school, Ibn Khaldoun, where her children could both freely live their faith and flourish academically.

“We wanted them to have a great education, and with our principles and our values,” added Ould Ibbat, who only started wearing a headscarf recently, while her teen daughter, Minane, hasn’t felt ready to. Her 15-year-old son, Chahid, often prays in the school’s mosque during recess.

For Minane, as for many French Muslim youth, navigating French culture and her spiritual identity is getting harder. The 19-year-old nursing student has heard people say even on the streets of multicultural Marseille that there’s no place for Muslims.

“I ask myself if Islam is accepted in France,” she said in her parents’ apartment, where a bright orange Berber rug woven by her Moroccan grandmother hangs next to Koranic verses in Arabic.

Minane also lives with the collective trauma that has scarred much of France — the gripping fear of Islamist attacks, which have targeted schools and are seen by many as evidence that laïcité (pronounced lah-eee-see-tay) needs to be strictly enforced to prevent radicalization.

Minane vividly remembers observing a moment of silence at Ibn Khaldoun in honor of Samuel Paty, a public school teacher beheaded by a radicalized Islamist in 2020. A memorial to Paty as a defender of France’s values hangs in the entrance of the Education Ministry in Paris.

For its officials and most educators, secularism in public schools and other public institutions is essential. They say it encourages a sense of belonging to a united French identity and prevents those who are less or not religiously observant from feeling pressured, while leaving everyone free to worship in private spaces.

For many French Muslims, however, and other critics, laïcité is exerting precisely that kind of discriminatory pressure on already disadvantaged minorities, denying them the chance to live their full identity in their own country.

Amid the tension, there's broad agreement that polarization is skyrocketing, as crackdowns and challenges mount for this French approach to religion and integration.

While open confrontations are still numbered in the dozens among millions of students, it has become common to see girls put their headscarves back on the moment they exit through a public school’s doors.

“Laws on laïcité protect and allow for coexistence — which is less and less easy,” said Isabelle Tretola, principal of the public primary school whose front gate faces the door to Ibn Khaldoun’s small mosque.

She addresses challenges to secularism every day — like children in choir class who put their hands on their ears “because their families told them singing variety songs isn’t good.”

“You can’t force them to sing, but teachers tell them they can’t cover their ears out of respect for the instructor and classmates,” Tretola said. “In school, you come to learn the values of the republic.”

Secularism is one of four fundamental values enshrined in France’s constitution. The state explicitly charges public schools with instilling those values in children, while allowing private schools to offer religious instruction as long as they also teach the general curriculum that the government establishes.

Unlike the United States, where fights over what values schools teach cleave along partisan lines, support for laïcité is almost universal in France’s political establishment, though some on the right criticize it as anti-religion and on the left as a vestige of colonialism.

Government officials argue the prohibition against showcasing a particular faith is necessary to avoid threats to democracy. In the 19th century, those were seen as stemming from the political influence of the Catholic Church. Today, the government has made fighting radical Islam a priority, and secularism is seen as a bulwark against the feared growth of religious influence on daily life, down to beachwear.

“In a public school, the school for everyone, one behaves like everyone else, and should not make a display,” said Alain Seksig, secretary general of the Education Ministry’s council on secularism. It has produced guides for teachers and students after an increase in incidents, especially over headscarves.

“What do we say to the girl who says, ‘I don’t want to wear it under pressure?’ The school is on her side,” he added.

For many teachers and principals, having strict government rules is helping confront multiplying challenges. The curriculum — from music to evolution to sexual health — is a new target, though all public students receive a “secularism in school” guide that notes objecting to teaching on the basis of religion is forbidden.

Some 40% of teachers report self-censoring after the attacks on Paty and another teacher, Dominique Bernard, slain last fall by a suspected Islamic extremist, said Didier Georges. He’s in charge of secularism issues for SNPDEN-UNSA, a union representing more than half of France’s principals.

Like him, Laurent Le Drezen, a principal in a small city about an hour from Marseille and a leader of another education workers union, SGEN-CFDT, sees a nefarious influence of social media in the growth of Muslim students challenging secularism at school.

“I’m intransigent on laïcité, because it helps with national cohesion, national community. It’s not a negation of religion,” Le Drezen said.

His classroom experience in Marseille’s Quartiers Nord — often dilapidated suburbs with projects housing mostly families of North African origin — also taught him the importance of showing students that schools aren’t coming after them for being Muslim.

At Marseille’s Cedres Mosque, next to the projects, Salah Bariki, who has worked on interreligious affairs with city hall, said youth are struggling with exactly that sense of rejection from France.

“What do they want us to do, look at the Eiffel Tower instead of Mecca?” Bariki quipped. Nine of ten young women in the neighborhood are now veiled, “for identity more than religion,” he added.

To avoid a vicious cycle, more — not less — discussion of religion should be happening in schools, argued Rabbi Haïm Bendao. He runs a small conservative synagogue in a nearby neighborhood, and wishes he could give talks about integration in public institutions as he routinely does in private ones, in partnership with imams.

“To establish peace, it’s a daily effort. It’s crazy important to speak in schools,” said Bendao, who has gone to both Ibn Khaldoun and the Catholic school across from it, Saint-Joseph, which also enrolls many Muslim students.

Its principal, Cédric Coureur, says private schools have the advantage of being allowed to address questions students might have about God — and provide the kind of answers “within the republican framework” that helped him integrate into France as the son of Mauritian immigrants.

“School welcomed me, it gave me the keys to love this country without telling me to do so,” Coureur said. “The French state doesn’t recognize being Christian or Muslim or Jew or Buddhist, it recognizes that you are French.”

Several families at Ibn Khaldoun said they chose that private school, however, because it can support both identities instead of exacerbating all-too-public doubts over whether being Muslim is compatible with being French.

“When I hear the debate over compatibility, that’s when I turn off the TV. Fear has invaded the world,” said Nancy Chihane, president of the parents’ association at Ibn Khaldoun.

At a recent spring recess where girls with hijabs, others with their hair flowing in the fierce local wind known as Mistral, and boys all mingled, one headscarf-wearing high-schooler said transferring to Ibn Khaldoun meant both freedom and community.

“Here we all understand each other, we’re not marginalized,” said Asmaa Abdelah, 17.

Nouali Yacine, her history and geography teacher, was born in Algeria — which was under French colonial rule until it won independence in 1962 in a violent struggle — and raised in France since he was 7 months old. While his parents would have considered it treason to identify as French in the anti-colonial context, his daughter — a public school student — tells him she knows no other identity.

“We are within the citizenry. We don’t pose that question, but they pose it to us,” Yacine says.

Started in 2009 with 25 students, Ibn Khaldoun now enrolls nearly 400 as one of the few private Muslim schools under contract with the French government. That means they’re financially supported but have to abide by strict curricular and behavioral requirements.

The school’s founding director, Mohsen Ngazou, who’s also an imam and president of the national association Muslims of France, is equally adamant about respecting religious and education obligations.

He recalls once “making a scene” when he saw a student wearing an abaya over pajamas — the student code prohibits the latter alongside shorts and revealing necklines.

“I told her she wasn’t ready for class,” Ngazou said. “The abaya doesn’t make a woman religious. The important thing is to feel good about who you are.”


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