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French state school today is an incarnation of its secular tradition

The state school is the incarnation of France’s proud secularism. But the institution and the nation need to find a language that embraces all.

Written by Vijay Singh |
Updated: November 7, 2020 9:04:18 am
(Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

My first brush with the French school system and the republican values it is meant to incarnate — both tied to the recent gruesome beheading of a French schoolteacher — was in the late 1980s. I was invited to France Culture, a radio channel here, for my book La Nuit Poignardée (The Wounded Night) to discuss the Punjab militancy in the 1980s. I was surprised to find two unusual guests with me — two Sikh boys, 13 and 15 years old, who had hit the “unofficial” news for being asked to refrain from coming to their state school in a turban. This was in itself an offshoot of the ongoing debate on banning French Muslim girls from attending schools in headscarves.

To put the boys in the studio at ease, I asked one of them in Punjabi: “Veera, school vich ki hoya si? (What happened at school?)” The boy didn’t answer, looking embarrassed. I asked again. He twirled his lips and mumbled in the most native French: “Chais pas, je ne parle pas le pendjabi, moi! (Sorry, I don’t speak Punjabi!)” The boys looked so perfectly French that I wondered how on earth they could be asked to remove their turban, which is almost a part of their natural attire. I raised this issue the same night with two renowned French women writers, who had come home to dinner. They didn’t know much about turbans, but the discussion quickly switched to Muslim headscarves and they became furious: “No way! No question of girls covering their heads. This is the French republic, and they’ll do what it demands!”

These incidents prodded me to dig into the historical making of the French secular state school, and its uniqueness that the French are so proud of. Jules Ferry, Minister of Public Instruction in 1882, was the first to create the state school, which was to be mandatory, free and secular. Besides the French Revolution’s cries of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, this school was also a response to centuries of violent conflict between the state and the Catholic church. The inchoate secularism of Ferry’s republican school was fortified in 1905, when a French law separated the church and the state, thus marking the beginnings of French secularism (laïcité) in modern times. While citizens were free to practise any religion in their personal lives, the state had now declared itself to be free of any religion.

This concept of French secularism evolved over the 20th century, giving French citizens “freedom to believe or not to believe, to practice a religion, to be atheist, agnostic or to be an adept of humanist philosophies, to change religion or to cease to have any religion”. But while French secularism guaranteed freedom of religion, it also conferred freedom vis-à-vis religions. Freedom of thought, which derived from the freedom of conscience, gave the freedom to criticise any idea, belief or opinion, subject to the only condition that it did not incite hatred or violence.

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French state school today is an incarnation of this secular tradition, which was further fortified in the face of new challenges posed by immigration, largely from former French colonies. In 2004, another law was promulgated, banning schoolchildren from wearing any overt signs or clothes that would betray their religious affiliation. This was an effort to create a unique school space, where everyone would look equal and “religiously anonymous” — no crosses, no headscarves or burqas, no turbans, no Jewish kippahs (skullcaps). (The Sikh boys come with hair-nets now.) The message was clear: School was meant to be a temple of learning, where reason and rationality reigned.

This secular outlook was strengthened by another constitutional right — the right to freedom of expression. Macron said recently at the Panthéon: “Freedom of expression is part of French heritage.” Armed with these two republican laws, French schoolteachers today are thus actively encouraged to foster a fearless spirit of inquiry, regardless of religion or any other hindrance. The caricatures shown at the French school, thus, form a part of this tradition of teaching and learning.


Freedom of expression is a precious human right, and it must particularly be protected today in the face of several democracies showing dangerous authoritarian trends and democracy being a distant dream in several countries. But must freedom of expression — or “secular expression” — not pause and review itself on that invisible line where the principle of human respect begins? Won’t tolerance of the other make the right of freedom of expression more dignified and acceptable? Won’t, as Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye make the whole world blind?”

Although President Macron has made it amply clear that his fight is for a secular state and against Islamic radicals, not Islam, the sad truth of our times is that the world has changed, particularly since the first Gulf war (1990). Anger has got internationalised, and social media has only been an accomplice in this development. Emotional turmoil and “touchiness” has increased, and, in a world where illegal arms are available for the asking, it’s become easy to pick up a gun and shoot down whoever angered you. There’s a stench of revenge in the air — both from the state and the angered people.

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In France, there are ominous internal realities, too. Demographics have changed. Ten per cent of the population is Muslim. Amongst the school-going population, this percentage, and the percentage of “believers”, is much greater. A majority of Muslims less than 25 years place Islam before the Republic. Reportedly, many schoolteachers are “Islamo-radicalised”. Several schoolchildren have refused to observe a one-minute silence to mourn terrorism-related tragedies. Recent showing of the caricatures, which seem to have become coterminous with the French republic, have divided people into pro or anti-caricature. Schoolteachers are at a loss of words to teach freedom of expression. Under these conditions and in the interest of promoting social harmony, would it not be wise, therefore, to re-read these precious lines?: “Before putting forward any precept or maxim to your pupils, ask yourself if there is, to the best of your knowledge, anyone who could be offended by your words. Ask yourself if there is a single head of family of a pupil present in your class, be it only one, who could refuse to give consent to what you are about to say. If yes, abstain from saying it.” These are the words of none other than Jules Ferry, the founder of the French state school, in his Lettre aux instituteurs (1883).

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 7, 2020 under the title ‘French classroom lessons’. Singh is a journalist, writer and filmmaker living in Paris.

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First published on: 07-11-2020 at 03:35:44 am
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