The secular nature of France's public education system is being increasingly undermined by religious demands from Muslim pupils and parents, according to a new report drafted by the French government. The report, which describes the failure of French efforts to promote multicultural values, says that teachers in schools with a high proportion of Muslim children are being threatened on an almost daily basis by Muslims who object to courses about the Holocaust, the Crusades or evolution, and who demand halal meals and "reject French culture and its values."
The136-page draft report is titled "Taking up the Challenges of Integration in Schools," and has been drawn up by a French government agency called the High Council for Integration (HCI). The HCI was created by the French government to conduct research and to provide advice on issues related to the "integration of foreign residents or those of foreign origin." The HCI, which visited more than 200 schools and met with staff and others involved in education over a period of several months, will present the final report to French President Nicolas Sarkozy in December.
The report, among its many findings, says that Muslim pupils and parents in France are pressuring educators to stop teaching about world religions, the Holocaust or France's war in Algeria. They are also trying to silence discussion of events related to Israel and the Palestinians, or American military actions in Muslim countries.
"Teachers regularly find that Muslim parents refuse to have their children learn about Christianity," the report says. "Some think it amounts to evangelization." The report also says "anti-Semitism ... surfaces during courses about the Holocaust, such as inappropriate jokes and refusals to watch films" about Nazi concentration camps. "Tensions often come from pupils who identify themselves as Muslims."
The report says that although teachers can discuss the transatlantic slave trade without incidents, they face harsh criticism from Muslim pupils when they teach about the history of slavery within Africa or in the Middle East.
During Ramadan, some Muslim students harass others who do not observe the annual daytime fast, the report says. Boys who identify themselves as Muslims and reject French values harass girls who do well in class as "collaborators" with the "dirty French." Some girls ask to be excused from gym or pool sessions because they are not supposed to mix with boys, the study adds.
In some areas with large Muslim populations, many pupils shun school cafeterias for religious reasons, even though most schools offer alternative dishes when pork is on the menu. "Demand for halal menus is strong, even for the very young in public crèches [day-care centers]," the report says. "In some cities, there are petitions for halal – and sometimes kosher – meals."
The study says that the French state could allow alternatives to pork, but cannot allow halal or kosher meals because the price for ritually slaughtered meat includes a tax paid to religious organizations that certify the food is properly prepared. "The school cannot, in this sense, participate in the religious education of its pupils or conform to principles that it does not recognize," the report states..
It also states that illiteracy is very high among Muslim immigrants and that some children begin primary school with a vocabulary of only 400 words, compared to an average of 1,500 words for children from native French families. Muslim children often use their own, minimalist, version of the French language in a deliberate attempt to differentiate themselves from French society; the resulting poor communication skills often makes it difficult for them to find a job later on in life..
Muslim children also suffer from poverty as well as the lack of education of their parents, according to the report.. The problems are compounded by the fact that many immigrant parents arrive in France with little or no education, and are not interested in having their children obtain a "French" education.
The study says that many teachers are disheartened and often lose motivation in the knowledge that their efforts to integrate Muslim children into the French way of life are being rooted out when they leave school in the evening. Teachers often are forced to relent and give up on lessons out of fear: their insistence on following the contents of lessons and offering counter-arguments regularly leads to threats and violence from children who repeat their beliefs in a dogmatic manner that excludes any possibility of discussion. This same spirit of rebellion, according to the report, hinders efforts to impose discipline in general.
The report concludes: "It is becoming difficult for teachers to resist religious pressures…. The school environment is exposed to strong ethno-cultural tensions. … It is now at a place where new demands are being found which originate from a refusal of multiculturalism, religious identity issues and even the rejection of the culture and values of the French Republic."
The report recommends that teachers should reject religious demands by Muslims by explaining the country's principle of laïcité, the official separation of church and state. "We should now reaffirm secularism and train teachers how to deal with specific problems linked to the respect for this principle," the report says.
(Laïcité strictly relegates religion to the private sphere. It also promotes the idea that French citizens are French first, and that ethnic, racial, national and/or religious considerations take a back seat. Both of these concepts are being challenged by a growing number of the estimated five to six million Muslims now living in France.)
French schools must insist on co-education, equal rights and mutual respect, the report advises: "Being a French citizen means accepting challenges to one's opinions ... this is the price to pay for the freedom of opinion and expression. … Must we recall that the crime of blasphemy has not existed in France since the French Revolution?"
The report advises that the way forward is to enforce obligatory nursery schooling to teach immigrant children French – as well as the values of laïcité – at an earlier age. It also proposes teaching French to parents, reinforcing laïcité-based discipline, reminding parents that social benefits are given on the understanding that children attend school, and teaching children the values and symbols of the French Republic, the principles of democracy, the role of national defense, citizen civility and other state-related values.
The HCI study adds to the long-running debate on the Muslim challenge to laïcité in French society. In 2002, a book titled Les Territoires perdus de la République (The Lost Territories of the Republic) warned about rising anti-Semitism among Muslim pupils. In 2003, the Stasi Commission Report and a French National Assembly Report led to the 2004 ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools.
In November 2009, President Sarkozy launched a state-led debate on national identity, inviting citizens to help define what it means to be French and sparking a wider debate on immigration policy. In February 2010, France entered into a heated debate over halal hamburgers. In September 2010, the French Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill banning the burqa-style Islamic veil on public streets and other places. The ban will come into force in early 2011 if it is approved by France's Constitutional Council.
In an interview with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, HCI President Patrick Gaubert said his agency decided to study how pupils from Muslim backgrounds adapted to the state school system because "this is at the heart of the challenges that French society must face." Gaubert also said the HCI would soon issue a separate "assessment of our integration policy that will show our relative failure in this domain."