Liberty, Fraternity and My Ass
Life For French Muslims in Europe's Most Racist country: a Catholic education
The bright cafeteria of Saint Mauront Catholic school is conspicuously quiet: It is Ramadan and 80 percent of the students are Muslim. When the lunch bell rings, girls and boys stream out past the crucifixes and the large wooden cross in the corridor, heading for Muslim midday prayer.
"There is respect for our religion here," said Nadia Oualane, 14, her hair covered by a black headscarf.
"In the public school," she added, gesturing at nearby buildings, "I would not be allowed to wear a veil." Oualane, of Algerian descent, wants to be the first in her family to go to a university.
France has only four Muslim schools. So the 8,847 Roman Catholic schools have become a refuge for Muslims seeking what an overburdened, secularist public sector often lacks: spirituality, an environment in which good manners count alongside mathematics and higher academic standards.
There are no national statistics, but Muslim and Catholic educators estimate that Muslim students now form more than 10 percent of the two million students in Catholic schools. In ethnically mixed neighborhoods in Marseille and the industrial north, the share can be more than half.
The quiet migration to fee-paying Catholic schools highlights how hard it has become for state schools, long France's tool for integration, to keep their promise of equal opportunity - irrespective of color, creed or zip code.
Traditionally, the republican school, born of the French Revolution, was the breeding ground for citizens. The shift from these schools is another indication of the challenge facing the strict form of secularism known as "laïcité."
After centuries of religious wars and squabbles between the nascent republic and a meddlesome clergy, a 1905 law granted religious freedom in predominantly Roman Catholic France but also withdrew financial support and formal recognition from all faiths. Religious education and symbols were banned from public schools.
As France has become home to five million Muslims, Western Europe's largest such community, new fault lines have emerged. In 2004, a ban on the headscarf in state schools prompted an outcry and a debate about loosening interpretations of the 1905 law.
"Laïcité has become the state's religion and the republican school is its temple," said Imam Soheib Bencheikh, a former grand mufti in Marseille and founder of its Higher Institute of Islamic Studies. Bencheikh's oldest daughter attends Catholic school.
"It's ironic, but today the Catholic church is more tolerant of, and knowledgeable about, Islam than the French state," he said.
For some, economics argue for Catholic schools, which tend to be smaller than public ones and much cheaper than private schools in other countries.
In return for teaching the national curriculum and being open to students of all faiths, the government pays teachers' salaries and a subsidy per student. Annual cost for parents averages €1,400, or about $2,000, for junior high and €1,800 for high school, according to the Catholic teaching authority.
In France's highly centralized education system, the national curriculum mandates no religious instruction beyond general examination of religious tenets and faiths as it occurs in history lessons. Religious instruction, such as Catholic catechism, is strictly voluntary.
Catholic schools are free to allow girls to wear a headscarf. Many impose the state ban, but several, like Saint Mauront, tolerate a discreet version.
Tucked under an overpass in the city's northern housing projects, the school embodies the tectonic shifts in French society over the last century.
Founded in 1905 in a former soap factory, the school initially served mainly French Catholic students, said the headmaster, Jean Chamoux. Before World War II, Italian and some Portuguese immigrants arrived; since the 1960s, Africans from former French colonies.
Today there is barely a white face among the 117 students. About one in five girls covers her hair.
Chamoux, a slow-moving, jovial man, has been here 20 years and seems to know each pupil by name. In his crammed office, under a crucifix, he extolled the virtues of Catholic schools. "We practice religious freedom, the public schools don't," he said. "We teach the national curriculum. Religious activities are entirely optional.
"If I banned the headscarf, half the girls wouldn't go to school at all," he added. "I prefer to have them here, talk to them and tell them that they have a choice. Many actually take it off after a while. My goal is that by the time they graduate they have made a conscious choice, one way or the other."
Defenders of secularism retort that such leniency could encourage other special requests and anti-western values, such as oppression of women.
"The headscarf is a sexist sign and discrimination between the sexes has no place in the republican school," Education Minister Xavier Darcos said in a telephone interview. "That is the fundamental reason why we are against it."
Chamoux suspects that some pupils - "a small minority," he said - wear the scarf because of pressure from family. He acknowledged that parents routinely demand exemptions from swimming lessons for daughters, who, when denied, present a medical certificate and miss class anyway. Recently he put his foot down when students asked to remove the crucifix in a classroom they wanted for communal prayers during Ramadan.
The biology teacher has been challenged on Darwin's theory of evolution and history class can get heated when the crusades or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is discussed. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Chamoux recalled, some Muslim students shocked staff with their glee.
The school deals swiftly with offensive comments, Chamoux said, but also tries to respect Islam. It takes Muslim holidays into account for parent-teacher meetings. For two years now, it has offered optional Arabic, in part to steer students away from Koran classes in neighborhood mosques believed to preach radical Islam.
Seventeen students volunteered to stay after class for the month of Lent to prepare a slideshow on the 14 stations of the cross for the Easter sermon in church. Only four were Christian, said Nathalie Geckeler, who led the project. Ten of the 13 Muslim students attended the sermon.
Ask parents why they chose Catholic school, and the answer is swift: "We share the same God," said Zohra Hanane, who struggles to meet the €249 annual fee for her daughter Sabrina to attend Saint Mauront.
But faith is not the only argument. Hanane, a single mother who is unemployed, said she did not want her children with "the wrong crowd" in the projects. Many local children attend the public school with six times as many students. "It's expensive and sometimes it's hard, but I want my children to have a better life," said Hanane. "Today this seems to be their best shot."
Across town, in the gleaming compound housing the Sainte Trinité high school in the wealthy neighborhood of Mazargues, the rules and conditions are different, but the arguments similar.
Muslim girls do not wear headscarves. But Imene Sahraoui, 17, a practicing Muslim and the daughter of an Algerian diplomat-turned-businessman, is here above all to get top grades and head for business school, preferably abroad. "Public schools just don't prepare you in the same way," she said.
Fifteen of the top 20 high schools in France are Catholic schools, according to a recent ranking in L'Express magazine. Catholic schools remain popular among Muslims even in cities where Muslim schools have sprung up: Paris, Lyon and Lille.
Muslim schools have been hampered in part by the relative poverty of the Muslim community, which commands less real estate than the Catholic church. And only one Muslim school, the Averroës high school on one floor of the Lille mosque, has qualified for state subsidies. The three others charge significantly higher fees to survive.
Also, as M'hamed Ed-Dyouri, headmaster of a new Muslim school just outside Paris, noted: "We have to prove ourselves first." For now, he plans to enroll his son in a Catholic school.