The quality of state schools in France has become so poor that working-class parents are turning to bursaries at Catholic private schools for their children’s education. As the government passes its ‘Islamist separatism’ law, these parents from France’s quartiers are battling a festering yet seemingly unacknowledged form of socio-economic segregation that threatens their children’s educational and life opportunities.
Neglecting state education and appealing to the far-right
Since assuming office in 2017 following the success of ‘En Marche!’, President Emmanuel Macron has hardly abided by his self-proclaimed centrist politics to strive for equal opportunity for all. In the wake of the beheading of collège teacher, Samuel Paty, in October last year on the streets of a Parisian suburb, Macron launched his latest vanity project: a new anti-separatist draft bill supposedly intended to curb the rise of Islamist communitarianism and protect the secularism that defines the French republic. Since the Revolution of 1789, church and state have remained resolutely detached, the most visible manifestation of this being in state schools, where religion cannot be promoted nor alluded to by pupil or teacher.
Whilst the current government does its best to appeal to a predominantly white right-wing electoral cohort by cracking down on the ever-elusive ‘threat’ of Islam, a real problem for French society appears to be going unnoticed. An increasing number of working-class, often ethnic-minority parents, overlooked by a government that does not need their support to win media approval or the upcoming election, are turning away from a neglected state education system to give their children a route out of socio-economic stagnation. Private schools are the only educational institutions in France who can legally be religious, and are overwhelmingly Catholic in orientation. As the standard of state-run education in deprived areas slumps, scholarships and bursaries to these schools are rapidly becoming the coveted hot ticket amongst concerned parents.
The obvious question demands why the state education system in a country that prides itself on equal opportunities for all is failing so tangibly. And as is so often the answer in a country run by predominantly affluent white people, the answer lies in the political elite’s latent racism. France has always had a relatively small population compared to its land mass, and after the havoc wreaked on the country’s infrastructure and population in the Second World War, the government appealed to the colonies for workers to rebuild the bomb-destroyed landscape.
They flocked to Paris, Lyon and Marseille from North Africa and beyond, attracted to the promise of steady work and a better life in the Metropole. Instead, they were met with the hastily-built and shoddy HLM tower blocks outside the city limits, and contempt from citizens who still saw them as inferior leftovers of the colonial empire. And so, the banlieue was born: translating to English as suburb, the banlieue steadily became something more akin to a ghettoised, deprived and forgotten landscape, cursed with high rates of crime and unemployment.
Today, it seems that standards in France’s state schools in deprived areas have declined to such a degree that, by multiple accounts, teachers there no longer want to send their own children to the schools they teach in. Teachers are likely to become less invested in the success of a school that does not directly affect their family life. Thus, Thus, a vicious cycle of deprivation and socio-economic segregation ensues. Local education systems are left tiered by socioeconomic privilege, where those who can afford to send their children to private school do, and those who cannot are left with a school with little personal investment.
Students in these areas would not be to blame if they were as disillusioned with the system as their teachers. A recent study found that individuals from low-income areas in France with a master’s degree were 22% less likely to find employment than their counterparts in affluent areas. Another study, by the OECD, finds that pupils’ chances of escaping socioeconomic deprivation in France are the lowest out of 72 countries analysed, whilst 40% of France’s students from low-income backgrounds are characterised as struggling at school. No wonder, then, that students in deprived schools are not performing at their best in the classroom, if they are set to be systematically discriminated against later in life, even with a master’s to their name.
It is, of course, both damaging and incorrect to suggest that all children from low-income backgrounds identify as ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, given the structure of the banlieues and ongoing cases of racial discrimination in the workplace, France’s socio-economic system continues to be geared against ethnic minorities. Immigrants are increasingly forced into deprived communities and unemployment, meaning that underfunded schools with declining standards of education are broadly the alma mater of ethnic minority children.
Protecting laïcité and Macron’s double standards
Given this reality, working-class (often ethnic minority and often Muslim) parents trying to give their offspring a brighter future are flocking to local (almost always Catholic) private schools to secure scholarships. This ‘choice’ is made even less voluntary by the fact that other forms of private education are now being actively targeted by the government. Part of Macron’s anti-separatist law promises to ‘crack down’ on Arabic language education and schools that tolerate visual shows of the Muslim faith. The double standard speaks for itself: schools teaching children that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life are hunky dory; no such luck for Muslim parents who want to integrate their faith into their children’s education.
In a speech at Les Mureaux, a suburb in the Yvelines department, which saw an unprecedented number of youths leave for jihad in Syria, Macron spoke out about the proposed anti-separatist law, claiming that the 6 million Muslims in France (the largest Muslim diaspora community in Europe) are in danger of forming a counterculture that threatens French Republican values.
The violent consequences of this irresponsible rhetoric is clear. But there is an added cruel irony to Macron’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. Unfunded education systems and socio-economic segregation breeds extremism. Schools in disadvantaged, predominantly ethnic-minority communities such as in Les Mureaux are suffering because of a government whose wilful intolerance is embodied by this very anti-separatism law.
The fact that parents in deprived areas are having to turn to largely inaccessible bursaries for Catholic private schools in order to give their children a shot in life points to not only the gaping inequality between the socio-economic classes but also to the skewed priorities of Macron’s government.
If the President was truly concerned by the humanitarian cost of radicalisation, he would address the issues of ghettoisation and deprivation in predominantly ethnic-minority communities that are often at the root of this problem. Instead, he has chosen to borrow a tactic from the far-right handbook designed to feed off society’s most base impulses in a bid to secure votes ahead of the 2022 presidential election.
Macron’s 2022 agenda
Step one on the government’s agenda, therefore, is not to provide an integrated education solution, but to secure Macron’s re-election in the upcoming presidential election. The path they envisage: winning over votes from Marine Le Pen’s electoral base by perpetuating the alienation and othering of Muslim communities that broadly characterises her manifesto.
Emmanuel Macron has used his time in office to paint immigration as the scourge of the working-class francais de souche, stealing welfare, jobs and housing. Meanwhile, the gilets jaunes protesters (which, surprise surprise, included workers of all ethnic and religious backgrounds) have repeatedly tried to voice the real demands of France’s working class, such as a higher minimum wage and an increase in wealth tax (which Macron repealed). Instead, Macron chooses to tackle a faux ‘Muslim’ issue that only the right is interested in, proving the insalubrity of his political priorities. In an interview with Les Echos newspaper, a government aide confirmed as much, stating that the President was hoping to ‘avoid a radicalisation of public opinion’ by dislodging the monopoly Rassemblement National (RN) – formerly Front National – has on the immigration debate.
Contrary to the aide’s careful wording, this has little to do with ‘avoid[ing] a radicalisation of public opinion’. Rather, political momentum is going in the wrong direction and Macron is aware of it. The far right pose the biggest threat to Macron’s re-election chances in 2022, and they often cite terrorism or high crime rates amongst deprived immigrant communities as a justification for a familiarly racist rhetoric. Macron is not blind to the ghettoisation of ethnic minorities and the working class. Rather, he has decided that potential political gain justifies pandering to a part of the national electorate that supports Le Pen’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. Not to mention the support he receives from a middle-class media elite who don’t come into contact with working-class and ethnic-minority migrant communities because of the very ghettoisation Macron claims to lament.
Having made these political decisions in the interest of prolonging his time in office, the President has sacrificed both France’s Muslim and working-class communities. It is why, for example, he projected provocative cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad onto government buildings after Samuel Paty’s murder, in a media stunt to supposedly promote free speech. All the while, Macron has done little to address one of the root causes of home-grown radicalisation: disillusionment birthed from socio-economic deprivation and ghettoisation. Integrated and quality education are forfeited in the name of ‘immediate action’ provided by Islamophobic repression. If Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National continues on its upwards spiral in popularity, they are certain to accelerate their anti-immigration and anti-Muslim focus. If Macron continues on his spiral of imitation, he will do just the same.