The French principle of secularism has been twisted by politicians and so often wrongly used to attack Islam that schoolchildren have been left baffled, the French education minister has warned.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told the Guardian that after last year’s devastating jihadiattacks in Paris, France was overhauling the teaching of secularism and civic values as part of the country’s drive against terrorism and radicalisation.
“We have to reappropriate the concept of laïcité [secularism] so we can explain to our young pupils that whatever their faith, they belong to this idea and they’re not excluded. Secularism is not something against them; it protects them,” she said.
Since last January’s attacks on the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris kosher supermarket, when 17 people were killed, and November’s attacks that killed 130, French schools have taken centre-ground in the nation’s soul-searching on how young French men could take up guns against their fellow citizens.
Much of the soul-searching has been painful. There were more than 200 incidents of disruption in schools during the minute’s silence after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that published the Muhammed cartoons. In turn, the government launched an action plan against inequality and what the prime minister called France’s “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid”. Since then, more than 800 children have been flagged up by schools over potential radicalisation.
In an interview with the Guardian as she travelled to London to look at how UK schools tackle social inequalities and to discuss digital education, Vallaud-Belkacem said the principle of secularism was central to the anti-radicalisation struggle in France.
France is a secular republic built on a clear separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs. The state remains neutral in terms of religion but must safeguard everyone’s freedom to practise their own faith. In 2004, France banned girls from wearing Islamic headscarves in state schools – along with banning all other religious symbols such as crosses or turbans – arguing schools must be free of all religion.
But Vallaud-Belkacem said France was overhauling how it teaches secularism because the concept had been twisted by rightwing politicians in recent years.
She said: “Laïcité is about saying we’re in a country where individuals can have whatever beliefs, or lack of beliefs, they choose and the public powers must be neutral towards them. That’s why in schools, we ask pupils not to wear distinctive religious symbols, because schools should be indifferent to beliefs and everyone must be treated equally. But there had been a growing sense of incomprehension among pupils over what this meant, with some pupils feeling it was an aggressive attack on who they were.”
She added: “If a big number of young pupils felt secularism was an attack on them, it was because the term had been misused and deformed in the public debate for years by the extreme-right and the right as an attack on Islam. The term had often been misused to point out how Muslims were different to others, and that is clearly problematic.”
She said: “So we really wanted to work on that concept of secularism and specially train teachers on it.”
In an unprecedented initiative, more than 5,000 “citizen volunteers” aged 18-94, including retired lawyers, journalists and business leaders, offered to go into schools to talk about secularism. Many volunteers have complained they have not yet been called upon. But Vallaud-Belkacem said the project was increasingly being rolled out. “On certain, delicate subjects, bringing in outsiders to talk about values is pertinent because pupils listen to them more attentively,” she said.
French schools have been the target of what the government called “clear” threats of fresh terrorist attacks. Security has been stepped up and emergency plans put into place. The volatile situation was hammered home last month when a preschool teacher attacked himself with a knife, pretending he had been struck by an assailant from Islamic State.
Meanwhile, France is struggling to deal with deep inequalities and failings in its school system. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the French education system is one of the least egalitarian in the world. Only 5% of children with working-class parents reach university doctorate level and only 4% reach the elite graduate schools known as grandes ecoles.
Vallaud-Belkacem, who was born in rural Morocco, arrived in France aged four and grew up on a poor estate in the northern town of Amiens, said: “Equality in education is my number one battle.”
France faced street protests last year over her reforms to give more autonomy to France’s struggling middle schools. She refused to accept the longstanding quip that French education is unreformable and said the changes would take place this year.
Vallaud-Belkacem who will meet Nicky Morgan and visit the Pimlico academy in London, acknowledged that the current UK school system is fundamentally different to the French. She is to give a speech at the Bett education technology show in London, as part of president François Hollande’s promise to step up the use of digital technology in French schools.
Morgan this week stepped up Britain’s anti-extremism drive with an appeal to parents and teachers to be vigilant on radicalisation. She also said that it was “very much up to schools” if they wanted to ban Muslim women and girls from wearing full-face veils in schools.
Vallaud-Belkacem said of the focus on French schools in the wake of the terrorist attacks: “It’s interesting because it means that French people, when faced with attacks intended to divide them, instead of looking for revenge or a scapegoat, their first reaction was: how do we raise our children so that this never happens again?”