Secularism, Islamism and schools in France
In September 2021, the French government launched a four-year training programme for teachers to strengthen schools’ commitment to secular values. A recent study, published in December 2021, demonstrates some of the challenges for this programme.
IFOP conducted a poll of around 1,000 students over 15 years old for LICRA (Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme). This study showed that 43% of students agreed that the rules decreed by their religion are more important than the laws of the Republic, compared with just 20% of adults. A substantial 63% of Muslim students agreed that the rules of their religion are more important than those of the Republic. Just under a half of the students had experienced some form of religious separatism in their schools, rising to around three-quarters in priority education zones. Whereas only 21% of high school students personally identify with the various forms of religious separatism – for example, exemption from swimming – this figure rises to 49% of Muslim students, 49% of ethnic minority students, and 53% of students in priority zones.
To discuss the results of this poll France’s former Inspector General of National Education, Jean-Pierre Obin, spoke with BFMTV. The article in which the interview was published appears below, translated by Alexander Gray, Research Fellow at Policy Exchange:
“Islamism has penetrated society and schools in particular”: Jean-Pierre Obin’s harsh observation on secularism
December 9, 2021
Jean-Pierre Obin, the former Inspector General of National Education, thinks this is partly due to the isolation of some young people in ghettoised neighbourhoods where Islamist preachers can spread their ideas freely.
A study revealed by RMC this Thursday morning shows that 40% of religious high school students believe that the standards laid down by their religion supersede the laws of the Republic. The figure among all religious French people is 23%.
According to this IFOP report on behalf of the LICRA, more than half of high school students (55%) have already been confronted with a form of expression of religion in schools at least once during their schooling.
Faced with these figures, can we still consider that education is secular? According to Jean-Pierre Obin, former inspector general of national education and author of Comment on a laissé l’islamisme pénétrer l’école, “yes the school is secular legally speaking, and even ethically speaking”. “But the problem is that Islamism has penetrated society. And by penetrating society, it penetrates the youth and schools in particular”, he explains to RMC.
“The question is how to react to this dynamic of Islamism among young people because one of the lessons of this survey is also the generational break among Muslims in France. On the question of knowing what takes precedence between the laws of the Republic and those of religion, between Muslims aged 15-24 and those over 35, there is a proportion three times greater among the younger group. This is explained by the real dynamism of Islamist preachers in certain neighbourhoods. There are ghettoised neighbourhoods where young people live in cultural and religious autarky. Islamist preachers there are like fish in water. And it is in these neighbourhoods that most of the radicalisation is developing,” he says.
🎙 “Une des leçons de cette enquête, c’est la rupture générationnelle chez les musulmans de France”.
— RMC (@RMCinfo) December 9, 2021
Secularism, “an essential component of the republic”
Among the most widespread points of tension in schools, requests for “confessional” menus (47%), refusals to take part in swimming lessons (31%), refusals to participate in certain educational activities (24%) and finally refusals to participate in certain moments of school life (27%) feature most prominently.
However, Jean-Pierre Obin argues that secularism is an essential component of the French Republic.
“This is the system France has established to separate politics from religion. It is part of our political heritage so we cannot go back on it. This separation also means that the State guarantees the freedom of worship and conscience of its citizens. One of the great paradoxes is that in the name of individual freedom, an indulgence is developing towards an ideology which completely refuses freedom and equality between men and women. There is a contradiction among these young people, and teachers must be there to clarify things” he specifies on RMC.
Invited to face Jean-Jacques Bourdin this Thursday morning, the Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, assured that the State “has not given up on secularism”. “There is systematic training, a culture of reporting. There is no inevitability. But the situation is not good,” he points out.
 International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.