Why Forced Secularism in Schools Leads to Polarization

In France, the governmental devotion to a national culture has left some students fighting for their identities.

A playground is in the foreground. A church steeple is behind it.
A church and school sit next to one another in the village of Geste, France. (Stephane Mahe / Reuters)

“No more playtime,” said the French presidential candidate Marine le Pen in a speech in December, as she called for an end to free education for the children of undocumented immigrants. “I tell them: If you come to our country, don’t expect to be taken care of.” Le Pen, who leads the far-right National Front party, could reach the final round of the French presidential election this May, and has routinely decried the multiculturalism—described with the nefarious term communautarisme, or “communitarism”—that she and her supporters believe is undermining the French social fabric.

It’s no surprise that, in an electoral climate increasingly defined around perceived threats to French identity, Le Pen chose to insulate schools from migrants, whom she has demonized throughout her political career. Announcing the start of her campaign on Saturday, Le Pen promised to rescue France from the “rule and threat of fundamental Islamism,” describing a Muslim agenda to impose gender discrimination, prayer rooms at the workplace, and a host of threats to national identity.

French schools, considered the ultimate incubator of French identity, have long been a battleground over questions of assimilation and religion, particularly pertaining to Muslim immigrants and their children. But following the January 2015 attacks at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket—a massacre waged by French citizens that unleashed a wave of terrorist violence and has led to a seemingly indefinite state of emergency—schools have become even more central to debates over immigration, social cohesion, and national identity.

As France reeled from the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, politicians called for unity around what they saw as an assault on French ideals. Yet, as the nation paused for a moment of silence for the victims on January 8, 2015, many observers were alarmed when some Muslim students refused to participate, or openly sympathized with the attackers. In poor suburbs of Paris, some students argued that the attacks were staged with the aim of demonizing Muslims. “No, we are not Charlie,” they said, in reference to Je Suis Charlie, or “I am Charlie,” the slogan that became an international refrain of solidarity after the attacks. More than 200 such incidents were recorded that day. The attackers had denounced Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad—a reason many of the students were reticent to align themselves with the publication.

For Francois Hollande’s government, the refusal of certain students to side with Charlie indicated the failure of French schools to train citizens unified in their French identity, with implications not just for social harmony but for security. A major element of that identity is laïcité: the legally enshrined secularism that has formed the backbone of French social and political culture since 1905. Laïcité goes beyond the U.S. interpretation of separation of church and state in an attempt to create an almost post-religious society. Critics, however, contend that it has departed from its original intent and, in a tense social climate, disproportionately targets Muslims. Its proponents argue that it maintains neutrality, helping to forge a cohesive French society, and serves as a bulwark against the appeal of religious fundamentalism at a time when over 1,000 French people have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the so-called Islamic State.

Laïcité should permit social cohesion and allow a ‘vivre ensemble’ that transcends differences of origin or spirituality,” Béatrice Mabilon-Bonfils, a French sociologist who focuses on integration and social cohesion in public schools, explained in an email. “Yet it has been manipulated by the left and right—it’s at the heart of a moral panic, a defense mechanism that collectively identifies enemies.” For Mabilon-Bonfils, the interpretation of laïcité has never been so extensive or politicized as it is today, a transformation only compounded by an electoral campaign dominated by right-wing candidates who insist on a cultural battle between France and Islam.

The push-and-pull between laïcité and social cohesion is particular to the French context. But understanding these tensions is, perhaps more than ever, applicable to the United States under Donald Trump. A nationalist agenda that alienates swaths of society—either through rhetoric or policy—has concrete implications for national security; the exaltation of extremist groups like the Islamic State, which have used Trump’s Muslim ban as a rallying cry for their fundamentalist agenda, is a testament to this. These parallels should not be ignored.

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Debates over French identity—and how its secular foundations interact with a growing Muslim population that, by some estimates, makes up 8 percent of the population (the French census doesn’t classify by race or religion)—have long played out in French schools. In 2004, a law banning religious symbols in public schools passed with 93 percent approval in parliament. Although the law applies to all religions, it was largely seen to target Muslims and has consistently been referred to as the “headscarf ban” since its passage.

But religious “neutrality” is a tenuous recipe for social harmony, particularly in France, where Christian holidays are observed and nuns seem to get far less attention for their wardrobe than do burkini-clad beach-goers—not to mention the concrete inequalities Muslims face, particularly in access to the job market. Anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked following Charlie Hebdo and have continued apace since, particularly following the subsequent terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. If Muslim students, by virtue of their religious and ethnic identity, don’t feel French in their lives outside of the classroom, a reinforcement of so-called Republican values in schools will only deepen that sentiment of marginalization.

In refusing to profess solidarity with Charlie, then, Muslim students were in part rebelling against the imposed neutrality laïcité entails. Yet faced with signs of discontent among French Muslims, the government concluded that more secularism, not less, would be the solution. “We have to re-appropriate the concept of laïcité so we can explain to our young pupils that whatever their faith, they belong to this idea and they’re not excluded,” French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said in a speech on January 22, 2015, as she announced 11 measures aimed to reinforce Republican values in schools. In a televised address, Vallaud-Belkacem, who herself is of Moroccan origin, denounced in earnest the politicization of laïcité, stressing its role as a force of unification rather than division.

Accordingly, the measures aimed to deepen the instruction and comprehension of—and adherence to—the principles of laïcité. If successful, Vallud-Belkacem said, the initiative could transform students into citizens, allowing them to transcend individual differences to become part of a collective and unified France. That implies that the students who rejected Charlie were, by virtue of their dissent, failing to properly exercise citizenship. Worse, according to some political observers, their questioning of the French values espoused by Charlie Hebdo veered on complicity with terrorism; the edict was aimed primarily at schools in heavily Muslim suburbs, increasingly seen as a potential source for recruits for radical movements.

But the majority of French nationals who have been tempted by groups like ISIS aren’t religious—or at least they don’t start out that way. Even if their families are Muslim, they’re overwhelmingly non-practicing; 70 percent of European jihadis have come from atheist, Catholic, or non-practicing Muslim families. In a 2015 interview, Dounia Bouzar, the director of a French NGO established in 2014 to combat radicalization, told me that the “jihadis radicalizing youths hardly talk about Islam at all ... Islam is just the final polish” and added that “the majority of youths radicalized in France have never set foot in a mosque, and others have never seen Muslims.” But the politics of laïcité preclude a frank classroom discussion about Islam, making it more likely for extremism to be confused with authenticity and doing little to dispel the stereotypes about Muslims that feed Islamophobia.

The new measures overlook that reality, instead opting for a moralistic crusade in the form of “moral secularism” classes, laïcité training for teachers, and an annual day of laïcité. Students and parents are required to sign the so-called laïcité charter, which was introduced in schools in 2013—and denounced by Muslim groups in France—to affirm their commitment to the values it enshrines. Mabilon-Bonfils sees the measures as counterproductive and reactionary. “The aftermath of Charlie Hebdo gave rise to a sort of one-upmanship around a laïcité seen as a defensive response rather than a project for social cohesion in schools.”

Indeed, drawing on elements of a politicized ideology to reverse or resolve problems stemming from its very politicization is a flawed strategy. “For the majority of students, laïcité is a notion that evokes restrictions, interdictions, even vexations,” a Marseille schoolteacher told Le Monde in 2015. “It’s interpreted as, ‘schools don’t accept that we have a religion.’ They have the feeling to be relegated to the periphery because of their origin or religion.”

Another schoolteacher in Montreuil, in the socioeconomically disadvantaged department of Seine-Saint-Denis where an estimated 60 percent of residents are immigrants or the children of immigrants, echoed that sentiment. When he asked his students what laïcité meant for them, they responded with tales of discrimination and racism. “I want them to understand that laïcité isn’t oppressive or coercive,” he told Le Monde.

For Alain Jaillet, a professor at the University of Cergy-Pontoise, by attempting to elevate citizenship over individual identity, the 11 measures turn laïcité itself into a religion. “When we look at the measures, they’re a catalogue of ideas that advance a moral cause and give no space for dynamic discussion,” he told me. Rather than helping to depoliticize laïcité, the measures are moralizing. He takes particular issue with the second measure, which “re-establishes the authority of teachers and of Republican rites,” or rituals. “The Republic isn’t a religion,” he says. “We don’t go to a Mass of the Republic.”

In that context, laïcité has, paradoxically, become the national religion of France. And by imposing it as a moral compass toward citizenship, Muslim students—especially, say, a Muslim student whose mother wears the headscarf—must relinquish their own religion in order to ascribe to and be accepted by an increasingly religious form of French secularism. It’s worth mentioning here that, when headscarves were banned in public schools in 2004, the demand for private Muslim schools increased, sowing the seeds of further disunity.

There’s little doubt that French youth, particularly those from Muslim communities that feel targeted by state-of-emergency security measures, would benefit from a curriculum that highlights unity over division. But whether it’s about fighting radicalization or simply improving social cohesion, the French model of cultivating citizenship by erasing difference is proving increasingly self-defeating.