Education on ‘front line’ of France's battle against terror

Ian Langsdon, AFP

French President François Hollande has emphasised the role of education in upholding Republican values and rooting out home-grown terrorism as the country grapples with uncomfortable questions over its integration model.


The January 7-9 attacks by French-born Islamist terrorists have stunned France and prompted a new bout of soul-searching, rattling the nation’s faith in the Republican model of integration and its cherished secular values.

In a speech at Paris’s Sorbonne University on Wednesday, Hollande said teachers were “in the front line” of the battle to defend “Republican values” against extremist ideologies.

The French president praised teachers’ response to “to the commotion, fear, silence and, in some cases, denial elicited by these horrific acts”, referring to the handful of incidents reported as schools across the country observed a minute of silence on January 8, a day after brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi massacred 12 people in an attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

While the vast majority of schools said pupils observed the minute with respectful silence, in a few cases teachers were heckled or told that the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had “got what they deserved” for mocking the Prophet Mohammed in their drawings.

“We must neither amplify nor underestimate these incidents,” Hollande told the audience of teachers, lecturers and headmasters, “but rather examine them with lucidity.”

On Thursday, his education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said the government would invest €250 million over three years as part of “great mobilization of schools in favour of Republican values”.

Measures unveiled include the urgent hiring of staff trained to “teach moral, civic and secular values”, the encouragement of “critical thinking and debate”, and stiffer penalties for pupils who undermine teachers’ authority.

Tackling taboos

Since the terrorist attacks, France’s worst in fifty years, the country has been awash with talk of tackling taboos and facing ingrained problems head on.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France had to wake up to the “territorial, ethnic and social apartheid” plaguing the country. “This is not about looking for excuses,” he said, “but about looking at the reality of our country”.

Valls was referring to conditions in some of France’s poorest suburbs with a heavily immigrant population, where disaffected youths are prey to crime and extremist groups, including radical Islamists.

He spoke of “daily discriminations” against people “who do not have the right colour of skin or the right family name”, adding that the violent riots that rocked Paris suburbs in 2005 had “left scars that are still there”.

The prime minister’s words marked a turning point in France’s mainstream political discourse, which has traditionally refrained from talk of ethnicity and faith when describing French society.

Predictably, they have stirred controversy and led to cracks in the national unity that had prevailed among mainstream parties in the wake of the attacks, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy accusing Valls of an “appalling” comparison with apartheid in South Africa.

Celebrating immigration

Nancy Green, a professor of French history at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), said the very term “banlieue”, the French word for suburb, had become synonymous with stigmatization.

“The banlieues’ immigrant communities helped build a diverse and rich France, but there is not enough talk of their positive contribution,” she told FRANCE 24's Debate show.

Last month, Hollande delivered a passionate defence of the benefits of immigration as he formally inaugurated France’s first immigration museum, seven years after its hushed opening under his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Warning against racism, anti-Semitism and the "intolerable" rise in Islamophobia, he said the National Museum of Immigration in Paris would help "remind the French where they come from, what values they carry as French citizens, and what direction we wish to take together”.

His was a rare plea in a context of growing anti-immigrant rhetoric among many political parties, chief among them the far-right National Front, which picked up an unprecedented 25 percent of the vote in last year’s European elections.

‘Secular teaching of religion’

Jean-Louis Bianco, a former minister of social affairs and integration, said misconceptions of France’s secular values had exacerbated difficulties in dealing with immigration, particularly from Muslim countries.

In recent years, France’s strict secular principles, known as “laïcité”, have been associated with highly-publicized rules banning religious symbols, including Muslim veils, from French classrooms. This has often compounded the feeling among Muslim communities from poor neighbourhoods that they are being discriminated against.

“What laïcité really means is that we should all be free to be different and have different beliefs,” said Bianco, who now heads the independent Observatoire de la laïcité, which advises the government on matters of secularism.

“Our Observatory recommends that schools teach all pupils where France comes from, stressing that French identity is the result of this history (of immigration),” he said, pointing out that Italian and Polish migrants suffered from severe discrimination in the 19th and early 20th centuries, much as immigrants from North Africa do today.

In his speech at the Sorbonne, Hollande reemphasized the role of laïcité as a cornerstone of France’s education system, though calling for a “secular teaching of religions”, adding that laïcité “does not mean forgetting religions, or indeed being in conflict with religions”.

The French president announced the establishment of voluntary committees bringing together local authorities, business representatives and NGOs to help instill civic values in schools across the country.

It’s the economy

Grégory Bekhtani, an English teacher in the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris, home to some of France’s most troubled neighbourhoods, said that teaching Republican values would have little effect without concrete measures to help disaffected youths.

“Instilling values such as equality is a good thing and we already do it,” he said. “But they need to translate into genuine opportunities.”

When asked whether France’s integration model had failed, Bekhtani countered: “I’m not sure such a model exists; but what I do know is that there is a real problem of inequality, injustice and racism.”

While France has spent billions of euros trying to revamp its rundown banlieues in the wake of the 2005 riots, job prospects have gotten worse as a result of the economic crisis, with youth unemployment reaching 45 percent in worst-hit areas.

“France’s rundown suburbs are home to a very diverse population,” said historian Nancy Green. “But they have one thing in common: the lack of jobs.”



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