Culture-blind - University of Leeds

Maroussia Raveaud
ECER 2006, Geneva
The Multicultural Question and Education in Europe: Policies, Practices And Experiences
Parental discourse on religion and secularism in the French educational context
Maroussia Raveaud
Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Geneva,
13-15 September 2006
This contribution examines policy mediation and adaptation in a context where religious, ethnic and
other cultural identities are not officially recognised in the public sphere but considered part of the private
sphere. Indeed, French educational policy is firmly rooted within a secular republican framework which relies on
a colour-blind approach to promote equality. This paper draws on data from a comparative project based on
interviews with parents in multicultural metropolitan settings. 53 interviews were conducted in Paris and 26 in
London in 2004-5, using the same open-ended schedule. While the project focussed on parental values and
attitudes regarding education and school choice, this paper deals more specifically with the perception of
religious diversity in an educational context. The findings from the interviews are then contrasted to official
rhetoric as approached through government documentation. The range of discourse available to parents appears
to be constrained by cultural, political and educational traditions and values. However, far from endorsing
official rhetoric wholesale, many parents question, adapt and mediate secular ideals, raising the issue of the
relevance and durability of the French model of integration.
The French republican model of integration: an immigrant country in denial
France has been a host country to immigrants, from the time when it offered a haven to
Catholic refugees during the Reformation through 19th century industrialisation when workers arrived
from various European countries (Italy, Belgium, Poland…), followed by migration from the former
colonial empire (mainly North Africa). Yet despite the fact that 7.4% of the French population were
immigrants in the last census (1999) and an estimated quarter of the population has at least one foreign
ancestor, the construction of national identity remains based on a secular colour-blind ‘republican’
model which silences the role of immigrants in the shaping of this national identity (Noriel 1988).
‘Republican’ refers to the drive during the Third Republic (1871-1944) to consolidate a homogeneous
French nation, built upon the rationalist principles of the Enlightenment, a shared (high) culture and
political factors rather than cultural or socio-geographic communities (Schnapper 1991). Integration is
viewed as an individual process, based on an adherence to the principles of the rights of man, the
Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Citizens are defined by universal, abstract qualities, while factors such as regional identity,
community culture, religion, ethnicity or gender are relegated to the private sphere. The model of
integration, originally created to deal with internal regional diversity and later transferred to
immigration, does not actually deny diversity, but considers that individual freedom is obtained by
considering these aspects of identity as private, intimate, and sealed off from public life. Many aspects
of public policy ranging from education to employment through the collection of statistics and policy
formulation are guided by such a conception of the division between the public and private spheres.
This model of separation was initially applied to religion, leading to the birth of the French
ideal of laïcité at the end of the 19th century. This form of secularism consisted in separating the state
from the church, as in the American model. Yet while the American rationale was to protect religion
from state interference and to guarantee genuine freedom of belief and practice, the French situation
was one of tension between the young Republic and a Catholic church considered to exercise undue
influence over public and political matters as well as limiting individual freedom of thought. The
separation of church and state by law in 1905 had a relatively straightforward impact in practical and
institutional terms (Church property was transferred to the state, congregations temporarily lost the
right to run schools…). However, ambiguity remained as to whether laïcité excluded all religion from
public life, whether it was simply a form of state neutrality with a tolerance of individual creeds, while
some consider it was accompanied and anticipated by the formulation of an alternative secular
morality whereby laïcité could be seen as a form of secular ‘state religion’. Thus the French laïcité
was and remains fraught with tensions: does it regard religion with hostility or mere neutrality? does it
relegate moral and religious beliefs to the free choice of the individual in the private sphere or does it
offer an alternative moral system?
These theoretical debates have taken on a sense of urgency in the past 15 years. While the
Catholic faith over time accepted the constraints – but also the freedom – of the secular regime, laïcité
in France today is confronted with the growing visibility of some immigrant groups – in particular
North-Africans – whose visibility stems from ethnic traits but, much more crucially for France, who
have voiced claims to bring elements of the Muslim faith into public view. The wearing of the hijab
(headscarf) at school has thus become a bone of contention, giving rise to highly publicised debates
and controversial legislation.
The issue of religion is complicated by the fact that it is enmeshed in a set of related
dimensions of social inequalities, discrimination on the job market, urban segregation and educational
underachievement. What is more, identifying the extent of the problems is not facilitated by the lack of
conceptual and statistical tools (Fassin 2002). Indeed, the concept ‘ethnicity’ is far from being
universally accepted in social sciences and is still often considered taboo or indeed illegal in public
policy, as is the collection of data concerning religious beliefs (along with sexual orientation or
political affiliations). The Constitutions states that ‘France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and
social Republic. It ensures the equality of all citizens before the law, without making any distinctions
on the basis of origin, race or religion’ (1958: article 2). Official statistics may thus include ‘objective’
data such as country of birth or nationality, but collection of ‘sensitive’ data such as ethnicity, country
of origin or political and religious beliefs is forbidden by law (1978). Ethnic monitoring of
employment data or exam results has never been allowed officially, as it is considered likely to
reinforce the very divisions it claims to fight against. When a researcher at the national demographic
agency set out to estimate the numbers of the French minority ethnic population (Tribalat 1997), there
was a major internal crisis and public outcry, as this move was seen as anti-republican, potentially
stigmatising and racist (Le Bras 1998).
Social, ethnic and religious issues have thus challenged the legitimacy and relevance of the
secular republican ideology. This has led to efforts to redefine, adapt or reassert it in a defence of the
fundamental values of French political philosophy among policy makers, public figures and
intellectuals. This paper gives a voice to parents with secondary school children living in socially and
ethnically mixed urban areas and contrasts their discourse with official rhetoric and education policy.
Education policy: the encounter of universality with diversity
The notion of the republican school was formulated at the time of the French Revolution of
1789 but was not actually implemented until the Third Republic, a century later. The Jules Ferry laws
of 1881-82 made primary education free of charge, compulsory and secular, and from then on the
education system became the key for disseminating republican and secular ideals: education of the
masses was seen as the essential prerequisite for democracy, for the perpetuation of laïcité and the
transmission of a new universal ideal of citizenship. The ideals formulated during the Third Republic
are still considered as the core values of the education system, as stated again in the latest revision of
the national curriculum: ‘Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, primary education must remain
faithful to the great inspiration of the Republican school: offering all children equal opportunities and
a successful integration in French society’ (Ministère de l’Education Nationale 2002: 46).
The French education system is generally perceived as a heavily centralised one. This is
indeed true as regards the curriculum. However, the key to its universal aspirations lies elsewhere.
Indeed, elements of local autonomy have been introduced into the system, and teacher autonomy is
very strong as far as pedagogical practice is concerned. Yet what gives such unity to actual practice is
a widespread ideal of equal opportunities and integration, shared by policy makers of all the
mainstream parties, teachers, students and public opinion at large.
The notion of equal entitlement and opportunities was long associated with a distancing of
individual characteristics, so that teachers taught ‘pupils’ rather than children, and their role was
defined as one of instruction (transmitting knowledge) rather than the broader education of the ‘whole
child’ which was left to the responsibility of families. This distancing of individual and community
identity was seen as a means to bring into the public sphere a universal being, ‘liberated’ and ‘rescued’
from prejudice, local power hierarchies and socio-economic determinism. However, the double
influence of economic recession and the critical sociology of the 1970s, in particular the works of
Bourdieu and Passeron (1970), shattered the myth of a meritocratic education where personal effort
and achievement alone determined success, revealing instead how strongly educational pathways,
social and professional integration were determined by social background. Since then, the education
system has been suffering a legitimacy crisis allowing rationales other than the republican one to be
voiced (Derouet 1992). For instance, calls for personal development or for the recognition of
communities are no longer silenced but have acquired a degree of legitimacy unthinkable while the
republican model remained hegemonic.
One major challenge to the secular model has come from the Muslim community, which
suffers high levels of unemployment and discrimination on the job market. For French North Africans
in particular, the traditional model of integration (or indeed assimilation) no longer appears to function
in practice, or indeed to be accepted as an ideal. Among the young, an identification with Islam has
increased, and this led to the highly symbolical legal battle about the wearing of the hijab resulting in
the 2004 law outlawing conspicuous religious signs worn at school. Alongside deep concerns the
headscarf raises related to discrimination, racism and gender, it has become a symbol through which
the republican version of laïcité is challenged, called upon to justify itself and to reinvent itself in the
encounter with a ‘difference[that] refuses to disappear’ (Hall 2001).
Parents: a situated discourse
While the debates about the headscarf and the later inner city riots in November 2005 were
strongly dominated by public figures and intellectuals, a study of parents in multicultural metropolitan
settings allows us to hear a different voice. The project focussed on parental values and attitudes
regarding education, and had a comparative dimension as it was based on 53 interviews in Greater
Paris and 26 in London. Interviews were conducted at the respondents’ homes, based on the same
open-ended schedule. This paper deals specifically with the French sample, and with perceptions of
ethnic and religious diversity in the educational context. The French interviews took place in two
localities, Montreuil and Vincennes. Montreuil has a long history of social and ethnic mix, and was
sought out by liberal fractions of the middle class characterised by their cultural rather than economic
capital, who appreciated its proximity to Paris but also its intrinsic diversity. Vincennes is a more
upmarket suburb, with less social mix and more private confessional schools offering an alternative to
the state system. The Vincennes parents were typically affluent white middle class, working in the
private sector.
The interview schedule included the question: ‘Should schools try to take into account the
presence of students from minorities?’ It did not specify which minorities, nor the manner in which
schools might take them into account so as to elicit respondents’ spontaneous categories. This paper
explores French responses, articulating three dimensions that emerge from the interviews:
- criteria used to define minorities and willingness to accept otherness (1.)
- recognition due in school to minority cultures: from pluralism (2.) to culture-blindness (3.)
- representations of integration and variations on laïcité (4.)
1. Characterising and accepting otherness
It is significant that practically all the French interviewees reacted to the question on ‘students
from minorities’ by centring their answer on Muslim / North African children. A few exceptions were
references to a community from Mali in one school, as well as isolated references to Jews or to
practising Catholics. Only two respondents, both of them working class, spoke of their children’s
‘friends’ from other cultures or religions, using ethnic or religious criteria without any apparent
hesitation. In the rest of the sample, a sense of ‘them and us’ emerged (partly induced by the interview
question, although usually present in the interview beforehand).
Diversity could be approached from a practical or more abstract level. One very concrete issue
in schools with a strong Muslim presence was pork in school dinners. Most parents endorsed the
choices made by schools to offer pork-free menus alongside pork dishes, or indeed to remove pork
altogether. This was seen not so much as a step in favour of pluralism and tolerance, but rather as a
practical, non-ideological concession:
No, it’s true, they get pork-free meals. It’s a concession. For instance at primary school there used to be
two menus, and those who couldn’t eat pork said so, and so there were two sets of dinners prepared. At
Paul Eluard, because it’s very complicated to manage, there is never any pork. (Mme V., secretary in an
insurance company)
Significantly, this pragmatic view was limited to the canteen, peripheral to the essential school
mission. Such openness to diversity did not usually extend to learning, and the same respondent later
stated that the teachers should transmit the same culture to all. Responses were far more frequently
pitched at a theoretical, abstract level. And the answers revealed a wide spectrum of opinions, ranging
from the denial of difference to various forms of negotiation, mediation and reworking of concepts.
In multiethnic, multifaith areas such as those where the study schools were located, a clear
feeling of ‘them and us’ emerged from most of the interviews. Yet respondents grappled with the
limits in the available criteria to categorise and define the ‘other’. Especially the middle-class parents
with cultural rather than economic capital avoided politically incorrect criteria such as ethnicity and
religion. The dominant criteria used to describe the diversity of students in their children’s schools
were ‘origins’ (i.e. country of origin), ‘nationality’ and ‘social class’, which closely corresponds to the
categories used in social sciences and in political orthodoxy.
There is really a social mix in this secondary school, and that is very important as far as the integration of
the child as future citizen is concerned.
Qu. What kind of mix do you have in mind?
There are pupils of different origins, different nationalities, different social classes too. (Mr P. maths
Was religion not mentioned by this parent because it was considered irrelevant or taboo? Indeed, strict
secular views make religion an unspeakable aspect of identity inside school:
My daughter has an English language assistant at school and during the first lesson he introduced himself
saying ‘I am a New-York Jew’. I’m sorry, but I’m shocked when I hear that. He’s not meant to say that,
nobody cares, he’s American. (Mme F. music teacher in a public school of music)
Just as official census data does not include ethnicity or religion in the name of a universal
enlightened citizenship, some parents are reluctant to consider children of immigrant origin as
To me, a child of immigrant origin is a child like any other. Besides ‘immigrant origin’… okay, but if it’s
the second or third generation, no, they’re not… It’s not true, they did not pass through a territory other
than ours. (Mr M. retired factory worker)
Despite this denial of otherness on principle, this interviewee is far from being indifferent to the
difficulties experienced at school by ethnic minority children and he voices his concerns for them
during the interview, so that this apparent denial of otherness reads as an emphasis of common
humanity rather than a rejection of those considered different.
A variation on this view consists in acknowledging religious identity, but minimising its
relevance or indeed considering that it needs to be subsumed in the more traditional socio-economic
When I see what happens in England, there are plenty of Sikhs and Indians with turbans, there are
Muslim girls wearing the headscarf, and it’s not a problem. So I think the issue [in France] hasn’t been
formulated properly, the issue is not the headscarf, it’s something else, it’s the fact we didn’t see it
coming, the fact we didn’t give this community a space for proper places of worship instead of garages
and backyards in inner cities. There’s a real issue of unemployment that goes along with it. For those
Muslims who have the means to live decently and who have had the opportunity to study and who don’t
live in ghetto council housing, the problem doesn’t arise. As for those young girls, even if it’s not an
excuse some of them are under extreme pressure, and many of them choose to wear it [the headscarf]
because that way they are left in peace. (Mme M. stage designer and president of the PTA)
While the religious issue is accepted as genuine and legitimate, it is subsumed within the broader
perspective of housing and unemployment. The strategy of acknowledging while delegitimising
religious identity is also applied at a smaller scale, inside the school. Students’ faiths are accepted as a
given, but considered irrelevant at school where their identity is redefined as the universal one of the
I’m thinking of the religious issue – as long as individuals work together as a group, as long as they go by
the rules of the game, as long as they are already here and they’ve taken the steps to be in a state school,
to come to class, to take the lessons, to do their homework normally just like the others and to acquire the
same culture – then the rest is irrelevant. (Mme J. secondary school teacher)
This parent bridges the tension between individual culture and a universal pupil identity by first
accepting signs of identification to a particular community but then reducing them to something
‘irrelevant’ that need not have a bearing upon the work and integration of the pupil. While this attitude
is apparently less rigid than one refusing any sign of community identity, it still marks off separate
spheres, only they are no longer sealed off in time and space.
The respondents in this study appear to be diversely influenced by the republican
representation of integration. In particular, parental discourse often echoed the political reluctance to
identify ‘others’ on the basis of their ethnic, cultural or religious origins, while distinctions on the
basis of social class are perfectly acceptable (van Zanten, Ball & Raveaud 2005). The strongest
endorsement of the republican model was to be found among the parents characterised by higher
levels of education, liberal values and intellectual or social professions, although there were significant
exceptions from the working class.
2. Cultural awareness and multicultural teaching at school
Respondents were strongly divided as to whether and how schools should take into account
the diversity of their student intake. Positions ranged from enthusiastic calls for multiculturalism to
equally vibrant appeals to equality; from optimistic and idealistic responses to deep pessimism and
even racism. While responses tended to echo the republican ideal of schooling when formulating
general views, this was compatible with a variety of concrete proposals in matters dealing specifically
with everyday school life. The interviews thus reflected an ongoing debate about what ‘the republican
school’ actually means in practice, and the extent to which it is compatible with an acknowledgement
of cultural diversity.
Ideals permeated the interviews and conversely purely pragmatic answers were scarce. For
instance, teaching minority cultures was dismissed as a potentially attractive but unfeasible option:
How many teachers would it take? It would be nice, it would create plenty of jobs, but it’s impossible. If
it were possible, then why not? (Mme N. unemployed catering worker)
Roughly equal numbers in the sample agreed and disagreed with the proposition that schools
should give greater recognition to the diversity of student cultures. One position consisted in valuing
the encounter at school with actual children from different communities:
One of the reasons why I’m glad to have left my children at B. school is that they’re in an environment
which is relatively privileged but where there are people from all sorts of origins. It makes them quite
open, they know what a Muslim is, they have friends from various origins, and I think it makes them
more open-minded than if they had gone to a private school where they would have been surrounded by
social clones. That’s what led me to avoid the kind of school where you get this kind of elitist and
frightened attitude of sticking with your own kind. (Mme G. secretary and member of a parents’
The first position was mainly to be found among parents committed to ideals of diversity, tolerance
and harmonious co-existence within a plural society. Regardless of school curriculum and teaching
practice, a diverse student body can be considered formative in itself, and conducive to reducing
Now our children experience… I mean they’re used to diversity. They talk with one another. Through
their fellow pupils they get to see, for instance, how the Tunisian friend lives, how the French one lives…
You do feel that kind of thing.
Qu. Do you think all children, regardless of their origin, should be taught the basics about the main
religions and cultures?
Yes, it would be a good thing. It is said that what you fear is what is unknown. It helps to know the
others, to understand them, the way they behave, who they are. But you don’t need to go into details like
the Qur’an or the Bible. More like ways of life, traditions and all those things. (Mme J. computer assisted
Other respondents also placed their hopes in informal learning thanks to peers, not necessarily
rejecting formal teaching of the main religions, but sometimes judging that schools were not up to it:
It would be great [to teach all students about the main cultures religions] because they mix at school, they
rub shoulders, but at the same time they don’t know about how the others live. They learn it a bit among
themselves. But that’s as far as it goes. It’s true that if there was a general teaching about cultures – we’re
in a Catholic-dominated culture and you vaguely learn about the Catholic religion, you learn that it exists,
but you don’t talk about other cultures. And that’s a pity. Ignorance means that people don’t know, that
they imagine things, that they invent all sorts of things. (Mme P. graphic designer)
Not only was formal learning called upon, but also a broader school ethos and transmission of
values (although these have traditionally occupied a smaller role in French schooling than learning):
Qu. What values should schools promote?
Tolerance, meeting others, listening to others, a genuine communication that will enable individuals to
meet, to form communication networks. I see it all the time in meetings, in exchanges, in debates –
generally speaking people haven’t learnt to communicate. Communicating… if you’re not open to
others… even if they are completely different from you, then you can’t make progress, you can’t
exchange, you can’t share. (Mr L. retired education assistant)
Although several interviewees claimed the benefits of social mix at school, a more frequent
response was to shift the encounter away from actual contact with a flesh and blood other towards an
encounter mediated by a culture that is taught rather than experienced. Respondents thus tend to shift
from the actual other to the culturally-mediated other:
It’s a fact that the school has pupils from different cultures, it’s something very enriching. That’s why
we’re so pleased with what goes on at school. My child discovers situations he doesn’t know. It’s good to
be able to study civilisations that are close to us, that are represented by pupils next to us. (Mr P. maths
While this parent moved seamlessly from the actual other to the more abstract level of civilisation, the
dominant attitude to otherness was one where the cultural exchange evinced the interpersonal
exchange, where otherness was framed within the highly cognitive knowledge orientation that
dominates French schooling. Diversity at school can thus be channelled into a transmission of cultural
heritage that shifts to a more abstract vantage point than the actual encounter with members of
minority groups.
As for teaching the culture of ethnic minority pupils, yes, as long as we’re talking about culture, that’s
something essential, it’s culture, wherever it comes from and whatever it is, it’s part of what you always
benefit from, at school or elsewhere, what you gain by receiving so there is not the slightest doubt about
that. […] The same goes for religion. Religion is an object of culture, it’s even an essential cultural object
so teaching, if you mean teaching about religions and what constitutes the dominant religious thoughts,
including atheism, that seems to me to be part of culture and therefore an essential notion. (Mr H. film
The acceptability of diversity appears to depend on the ability to transcend the other in his or
her culture, in the anthropological sense, so as to apprehend diversity strictly from the angle of ‘high’
culture expressed mainly through literature and art:
In second year, my daughter had a teacher in design and technology who had set up a whole unit on
Islamic art. I thought that was really interesting because for the children who are not from a Muslim
background, they discovered a universe that is very very rich at a cultural level… and it made it possible
to value the children of North-African origin. There are times when the syllabus allows you to value the
children’s origins. (Mme G. secretary and member of a parents’ association)
A tension thus appears around the notion of ‘taking minority pupils’ culture into account at
school’, which reveals as much about respondents’ views of ethnic minorities as it does about their
representation of the mission of the education system. While parents can be quite flexible about issues
like pork-free school dinners, this tolerance extends less easily to the classroom and learning
situations. Even among those parents who see no reason to ban headscarves at school, the idea of
identical curricular entitlement for all is maintained:
Qu. Should schools take into account the culture of children of immigrant origin?
If you mean religious education, teaching about religion, I’m definitely against it. If you mean pork-free
meals at school, then yes, there’s no reason not to respect someone’s practice, the same goes for the
headscarf. On the other hand, if you mean respecting Muslims for sports or swimming and allowing
certain girls not to go swimming with the rest, then no. You see?
Qu. Where do you draw the line?
The line is the teaching you consider everyone should receive, and to me swimming is part of that, and
then there are the practices that everyone can decide for themselves and that don’t hinder anyone. There’s
a point at which it is a hindrance and a point at which it isn’t a problem. If it hinders the possibility of
development of the individual that comes to school, then it’s unacceptable. (Mr J. shopowner)
While cultural diversity was favoured by some respondents, it tended to be all the more acceptable as
it remained on the margins of the education system (in the canteen or playground), or could be
incorporated into the dominant mode of transmission of knowledge. Even the most ‘multicultural’ of
French parents saw school as the key to integration. Few were willing to compromise on the common
curriculum even though they might be prepared to incorporate many more aspects of minority cultures
into it.
3. Cultural blindness in the name of integration?
The division between the ‘multicultural’ position and its rejection is not as clear-cut as may
initially appear, as both stances draw upon the same rhetoric of ‘integration’. Indeed, those
respondents who reject the proposition that minority students’ culture should be taken into account at
school often refer to the same ideal as the parents who agreed with the proposition, namely the
‘integration’ of children of ethnic origin.
Few parents actually deny the notion of diverse cultural identities. However, many develop
strategies to justify their absence of recognition at school:
Let secularism (laïcité) be imposed. Students bringing out a snack a five o’clock during Ramadam, no, I
definitely disagree. Because it’s an endless circle. I think there’s got to be somewhere non religious.
Because… it happens anyway, French society is a mixture of cultures. Plenty of things are done for
African culture, for Mali, I don’t know if you need more, no. (Mme F. music teacher in a public school of
Here the universal identity of the learner evinces a community identity. However the rejection of
religious and cultural identities at school is neither absolute, nor presented as a desirable outcome for
society at large. Acknowledgement of difference exists outside school, but with a representation of
school as a haven, free from community divisions. School is constructed as a neutral space where
dividing lines that separate communities in society are set aside for a while, or at least contained
within acceptable limits. The unspoken assumption is that community identities can only exist to the
detriment of the universal citizenship that is both the result of and the prerequisite for integration.
While a realist standpoint is to consider that ethnic and religious identities will filter through, tolerance
is conditional on compatibility of family or community values with secular republican rules:
I think there’s got to be tolerance. But tolerance within the limits of the republican values. (Mme P.
graphic designer)
Respecting the values of the families? Yes, except that these values may go against the notions of liberty,
equality and fraternity. When young people come to school with values passed on by their family that are
incompatible with the values of the Republic, and which may go against what the school is there to teach,
it’s got to be said to that young person. […] I’m thinking of people who might come saying ‘she won’t
come to school on Friday afternoons’, or ‘she won’t come because we have our religious festival on that
day’, or ‘our daughter will come with a crucifix around her neck’, or ‘our son will come with a skullcap
on his head’… If a family comes along imposing that kind of thing, I think you need to enter into a
dialogue with them, but from a certain point it’s the school of the Republic. Otherwise you can go to a
faith school. (Mme B. secretary).
One step further, some respondents’ stated goal is a society where differences disappear
altogether. This position is related to two sets of ideals that appear mutually exclusive at first sight –
one of intolerance, and one of integration. The more intolerant view is defended particularly by
families who have chosen private education, and for whom cultural diversity has no claim whatsoever
on the education system or on society at large. To them, integration is viewed as a one-sided process
of assimilation:
Recognising… um cultures? Well, on principle no because it’s, it’s up to those children to integrate.
(Mme L. pharmacist)
In this private school, there are scarcely any minority ethnic pupils, which appears to be one
reason (albeit rarely acknowledged) for choosing it in order to avoid the social and ethnic mix of the
public sector schools. This position illustrates a criticism often formulated by non-French observers
regarding the French ‘hypocrisy’ of a system that hides behind a generous republican rhetoric to
legitimate a lack of recognition of minority cultures and creeds. At the same time, it is significant that
the republican rhetoric was most strongly and unconditionally voiced by the immigrant families in the
Qu. Should schools take into account the culture of children of immigrant origin?
Oh no! Why should they? My children were born here, now they are French, automatically, why should I
ask for something extra for them, why?
Qu. Learning the language for instance?
Their language is French! They write it, they read it, they speak it. [pause] Actually the problem for us –
but it’s really a secondary problem – is reading and writing [he hesitates] in their paternal language.
That’s a point, that’s something we don’t have. Now my children can’t read or write Arabic.
Qu. Do you think school should do that?
No, not necessarily, no, it shouldn’t. Those are extra things… […] My children respect religion, they are
Muslims, they fast, they follow the rules. Why do they do it? Because I, because their parents do it, and
they follow suit. It’s like a child who follows his mother and does what she does.
Qu. Are you in favour of private Muslim schools?
No, no, that’s a minor point. What I would like for my children nowadays in this society is success –
success in their studies, and for them to get to where they want to go tomorrow. (Mr E. unemployed
factory worker)
This Muslim family does not deny or reject its religious creed, but seals it off completely from
the identity of the child as pupil. Similar arguments can be turned around by ‘ethnic majority’ parents,
using this relegation of cultural and religious identity to a private sphere safely kept out of school as a
mobilisation of socially acceptable arguments to express xenophobia:
There are too many different nationalities. They don’t have the same culture. There are some children
who are nice and polite – just because they are coloured doesn’t mean anything right. I’m not racist at all
– but some children are left to themselves. (Mme N. unemployed catering worker)
Here the ethnic criterion is apprehended by nationality, colour is rejected as illegitimate but
associated to a lack of adequate parental responsibility. Similarly, colour is mentioned but rejected
using the process of subsuming it into a learner identity by the following respondents, whose children
go to a private, non mixed school:
Mme V. In this school there is no racism, well there is a predominance of Whites, that’s true, but I mean
they are… it’s true that in that case you might ask the question about racism.
Mme G. No, we do have coloured pupils. But they are accepted, I don’t think the children ask themselves
too many questions about whether he is black, whether… No, the climate is relatively peaceful, so they
don’t ask too many questions, they’re there to learn… [prolonged silence with awkward smiles] (Mme V.
housewife, and her friend Mme G.)
A politically-correct feeling permeates this whole interview, and contrasts with the strong
language used by another respondent who, like her partner, works in the public sector in the arts:
I think there’s a tendency to go wrong about the notion of respect. You give the impression of respecting
children because you listen to them, you ask them for their opinion, you never want to appear
authoritarian. It’s a bit like the government’s attitude towards immigrants. They get ever so much respect
[ironical expression]… but at the same time you never give them a kick in the butt to say to them ‘okay
now, time to integrate, stop it…’ So where is respect? To me, it’s more respectful to say to a kid ‘right,
now get down to work, shut up’ [laughs] sometimes it’s more reasonable. It’s a way of showing you
expect something of him, that you don’t consider him as an idiot, you see? Rather than saying ‘oh yes, of
course, you have difficulties, bla bla bla’, you’re not respecting people if you always want to give them a
fantastic level of empathy. (Mme F. music teacher in a public school of music)
4. Four versions of laïcité: hypocrisy or a misunderstood ideal?
Despite a range of opinions inside the sample, practically all the respondents can be said to
converge around two fundamental points: an acknowledgement of the changes in French society
leading to new elements of cultural and religious diversity, and the notion that school has a crucial role
to play in integration and social harmony. However, these broad common values say nothing of the
practicalities: what are acceptable manifestations of one’s culture? where and in what circumstances
are these manifestations legitimate? Inside school, how to deal with the new student body?
Two related but distinct issues are at stake, and distinguishing them helps to clarify the debate
about laïcité. Both relate to diversity at school, but one deals with the actual flesh-and-blood children
while the other concerns the curriculum and teaching. On the horizontal axis a universal student
identity is in tension with multiple cultural, ethnic and religious identities whose visibility is accepted
or even promoted. On the vertical axis, the knowledge included in the curriculum ranges from the
traditional homogeneous content based on ‘high’ culture to a more pluralistic multicultural curriculum.
By combining these two dimensions, four representations of laïcité emerge.
multicultural curriculum
cultural heritage approach
same culture for all
valuing diversity
rigid laïcité
token diversity
rejection of laïcité
traditional curriculum
The first, most rigid view of laïcité (bottom left), verges on assimilation. At school, it
translates into a hostility to diversity both in the perception of students and in the curriculum. An
invisibility of community identities (‘indifference to difference’) and a ‘republican’ curriculum entails
a justification of status quo, viewing the curriculum as a reflection of ‘universal’ values which should
be adopted by newcomers:
I don’t think it’s narrow-minded to say it’s our values because they’re generous values. They should not
exclude anyone, neither should they attempt to please any one particular group. I think that should be
feasible – not excluding anyone and pleasing everyone. (Mr M. retired factory worker )
This vision of laïcité was defended by working class respondents, who saw it as non
problematic and not needing much justification:
Qu. Is laïcité an important value to you?
Well excuse me, if I go to a country, to China, to Japan, I consider that I should respect the values of that
Qu. If I understand you correctly, there should be a set of values the school transmits to all pupils, and the
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respect of student values should not go against the principle of laïcité?
You have to respect the values of the country where you live, yes. (Mr F. mechanic)
None of the middle class parents defended this double invisibility – of student diversity in
itself and of an unchanging curriculum. It provoked strong criticism in others, such as this selfproclaimed former Communist who associated such a vision of ‘integration’ to the medical treatment
of drug addicts:
I believe that immigrant children absolutely need to maintain their… ummm their origins. I don’t know if
in the long term it really favours integration [denying cultural diversity]. In the name of integration
should they be cut off from their origins, in a sense the way it happens in some methods for drug addicts,
cutting them off completely from their environment for them to manage to break with it? I’m really in
two minds about this method for immigration. Because maintaining them… it’s a good thing for them to
know where they come from… It would be interesting to do a study on this, you know, to see if
immigrant children who have continued to learn Arabic and their culture and all that, if they didn’t, if
family and social pressure didn’t keep them locked in their community instead of integrating into a
society that is multiform, multicolour, multiracial. (Mr L. retired education assistant).
One apparently more tolerant discourse (bottom right) was a token or instrumental laïcité
which tended to accept religious and community signs of identification, while maintaining a common
‘French’ curriculum. In fact, this standpoint usually amounted to a rejection of the secular ideals of
laïcité, and was voiced mainly by families who had opted for private Catholic education. A rhetoric of
inclusion contrasted with the fact that this particular private school, in a multiethnic area, was locally
associated with the avoidance of student mix:
Catholic schools, I mean according to what I have read about them, are more flexible, maybe, than state
schools. Yes, they [minority ethnic pupils] are maybe better accepted too, more flexible… in particular I
often see documentaries saying that there is no headscarf issue in private schools, there is no problem,
some wear them, some don’t, so in the end lots of Muslim families choose them… (Mme L. pharmacist)
Tolerating the headscarf could also be unenthusiastically endorsed as a necessary counterpart
to wearing a Christian cross:
My children have crosses they were given when they were christened. I don’t make them wear them
anymore because they’re past that kind of age. But I would find it a shame not to be able to wear them. If
so, why not accept the headscarf? [silence] it really is an issue. (Mme O. teacher, head of a parents’
For this group, despite a token acceptance of visible religious identifications, the curriculum
remained non-negotiable and it was up to minority groups to accept and adapt to the teaching of the
host society. Their difference, as one respondent quoted earlier said, was irrelevant as long as they
were prepared to work at school and to learn.
The cultural heritage view of laïcité (top left) also insists on a common curriculum, but this
time the curriculum is extended and enlarged to include multicultural elements. This approach is the
predominant one in the sample. It usually combines a de facto acknowledgement of student diversity
with an ideological call for leaving ‘particularism’ and community belonging outside the school gate.
Yet even as it considers that students must be students at school and not members of given
communities, cultures, ethnic groups or religions, it incorporates this diversity through the curriculum,
distancing and mediating otherness by including it in a new common culture:
Minority cultures should be taught, not only to children with immigrant origins. I think that the culture
should be the same for all kids. Precisely in a framework of integration why would you give different
elements to such and such? (Mme V. secretary in an insurance company)
While this approach usually rests on a universal student identity, this universalism is not a
rejection of diversity, but rather an attempt to create the basis at school for tolerance and mutual
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understanding outside:
Qu. Do you think that all children, whatever their origin, should be taught about the main cultures and
Yes, I even think it is crucial. Anyway, knowledge is fundamental so as not to be afraid of others,
precisely. When you know, you are less frightened. Fear always engenders rejection and violence. So to
me it is essential. (Mme J. secondary school teacher)
A very fine line distinguishes this view from one which promotes diversity, and which could
be considered as a ‘multicultural’ model (top right), where the diversity of the student body in itself is
seen as enriching. In fact, the respondent quoted above has children who study Chinese and Arabic,
which she begins by justifying as valuable and interesting knowledge, before moving to the flesh-andblood speakers of these languages:
My children chose highly original languages. My daughter learns Arabic and my son Chinese. It’s not
often you get that kind of opportunity and they did it, precisely because they were lucky enough to
encounter an unusual language which they won’t often get a chance to speak in Europe, but at the same
time we live with Arabs and Chinese people. (Mme J. secondary school teacher)
This is not a typical answer in the study, but it illustrates the current theoretical debates about
laïcité and its degree of compatibility with the acknowledgement of diversity. While laïcité has often
been criticised – outside France and within – for refusing to recognise diversity, the main issue that
emerges from this study is not so much how to consider pupils and whether to acknowledge their
creeds. It focuses rather on the issue of integration, itself understood as the accession to a public
sphere the boundaries of which are no longer clear. 19th century republican ideals held knowledge to
be the key to integration and to the full participation of an enlightened citizen in the life of the nation.
A core of respondents – often teachers themselves – continued to believe firmly in reason as the path
to integration, in learning to think for oneself, to make informed judgements and decisions. Whether or
not this freedom can be attained through knowledge alone, or whether it is necessary to take into
account the ‘whole child’ complete with ethnic, religious and cultural identities, is at the heart of the
debate, and determines not only what recognition to give minority voice, but ultimately the role of
school. This study shows that multicultural views are gaining ground, claiming the need for greater
public recognition of minority groups, at school in particular. However, faith in the 19 th century
traditional ideal of integration remains, with its strong distinction between the public and private
spheres, between the person and the pupil, between instruction and education:
Qu. Should teachers be involved in the education broadly understood of the whole child?
In the education broadly understood, not particularly, precisely. For me you mustn’t confuse all the roles.
It is up to school to replace the role of parents in education in the narrowest sense. I believe that teachers
are responsible for learning. Now if values are transmitted in the process, of course there are values that
are conveyed through knowledge and culture, but that’s not education the way it is generally understood
[as bringing up]. So I don’t think so, I think everyone should stay within their role. (Mme J. secondary
school teacher)
The respondent who was indignant about the self presentation of the American Jewish English
assistant went even further in this distinction between education and instruction:
No, I don’t expect school to bring up my children. […] Schools teach children to live as a group. That is
to say they teach children to respect… others, to lend their pencils, not to make too much noise, whatever.
But school will not necessarily teach a child the deep values that his parents pass on to him. I think it’s a
shame to rely on school for… the family has the first role. […] I don’t expect school to transmit values
because they might not be the same as my own. (Mme F. music teacher in a public school of music)
This sharp division between the public and private spheres limits the possibility of religious
(or political) expression in public. Yet this is not seen as a rejection of diversity, as is sometimes
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reproached the strictest republican ideology. Part of the question today is the extent to which laïcité
need entail this rigid partition between privately held beliefs and public behaviour. Indeed, it is in the
name of a more flexibly understood conception of laïcité that other parents defend the same ultimate
ideal of freedom, respect and citizenship:
One thing is for certain, it’s that when you want to form citizens, the old system that consists in putting
them all in the same mould, that’s the old joke from the colonial days when Africans were taught ‘our
ancestors the Gauls’, okay it’s a bit of a caricature but still, it’s a bit like that. To me you need to know
that no-one has just come down from a tree, that we all come from somewhere and you can never ignore
that, so it’s not a call for turning school into a sum of separate communities, it’s just that I think we are in
societies where it is easy to have exchanges, it’s enriching to talk about Africans, about people from the
Middle East, Asians or whatever, Northern Europeans, what have you, and all those people will blossom
all the more as their identity won’t be denied. So it can be curiosity, it can be respect, it can be a way of
avoiding stereotyping, there are all sorts of things to gain. (Mr V. technical director, elected parent
Confronted with evidence that the traditional integration model is failing to ensure ethnic
groups – in particular North Africans – equal opportunities at school and on the labour market, in a
context of increasingly vocal claims of a specific Muslim culture, the ideal of integration has not
subsided. But the notion that the ideal came along with a one-size-fits-all education model based on a
universal, abstract citizenship in the public sphere, is now challenged, leading to the multiplication of
competing models of justice. That they all answer to the name of laïcité does not help to clarify the
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