Equality, fraternity? France's immigrant youth not convinced

Equality, fraternity? France's immigrant youth not convinced
People stand, on January 21, 2015, in front of notes, flowers laid in front of French weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo building in memory of twelve people who were killed in an attack, on January 7, 2015 in Paris.

PARIS - Two weeks after the jihadist attacks that rocked France, the banner extolling free speech on the gates of Honore de Balzac high school in northern Paris is looking a little worse for wear.

The fraying sign declares the school "is Charlie" - echoing the global slogan of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine targeted by the extremists in the first of three deadly attacks.

Situated just within the boundary lines of Paris proper, separated from the high-rise suburbs by a ring road, Honore de Balzac's student body is an ethnic, cultural and social hotchpotch. Many of the students are Muslim.

All fell silent at noon on January 8 to honour the 12 people shot dead a day earlier by Islamist gunmen at Charlie Hebdo.

"What happened was very bad," said Ahmed, a lanky final-year student who stood chatting with two friends outside the sprawling school complex.

But while abhorring the killings, he made clear he had no truck with the murdered cartoonists who mocked Islam and other religions on a weekly basis.

"There are limits to free speech. There are things like religion you can't touch. It's a question of respect," said the 17-year-old youth who was born in France to Malian parents.

Fatima and Kevin, both also 17-year-old second-generation immigrants, of North African and Haitian stock respectively, nod vigorously in agreement.

Not all those who felt stigmatised by Charlie Hebdo's drawings were left unmoved by the journalists' tragic end, however.

The image of a fractured country being brought together by three days of bloodshed was muddied by around 200 incidents of dissent at schools, with some students boycotting the January 8 minute of silence or even giving the killings the thumbs-up.

Prune Hebert, a teacher of French and history at a technical high school in the 18th district of Paris, was among those who found herself trying to coax students into paying tribute to the cartoonists killed for their provocative drawings of the Prophet Mohammed.

'They had it coming'

"Why should we have to do it? You can't force me. They had it coming," was the reaction of some students in one predominantly immigrant class.

One student mocked the murders. "It's me who did the Charlie Hebdo attacks," he joked.

Hebert, who believes the rebellious elements were spurred by a knee-jerk desire to "shock and provoke" as much as by conviction, moved quickly to try find common ground.

You can condemn something - in this instance the cartoons - without resorting to violence, she reminded them.

"In France everyone can believe what they like, including whether God exists or not. It's freedom of expression that protects our respective beliefs."

Liberty, equality, fraternity

That message struck a chord with the class, which eventually agreed to join the rest of the school in a few moments of quiet.

It was a small but crucial victory in what is shaping up as a long campaign to rally children who feel excluded on religious and ethnic grounds around the French values of "liberty, equality, fraternity".

While representing just a tiny proportion of pupils, the acts of dissidence have triggered much hand-wringing about the plight of young people in predominantly immigrant neighbourhoods, where mass unemployment and social exclusion provide fertile ground for extremism.

Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who shot dead four people at a Jewish supermarket - came from the gritty southern Paris suburb of Grigny.

"Fixing public schools - long seen as the great social leveller, despite a growing flight to private schools - is seen as central to the remedy.

"School must be a sanctuary of civility," President Francois Hollande said Wednesday, warning "no incident... would go unpunished".

Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has announced plans to boost students' "sense of belonging to the republic", by increasing "moral and civic" instruction.

As the first woman to be named to the education portfolio, at the age of 36, Moroccan-born Vallaud-Belkacem who grew up in a tough Lyon suburb is often held up as a symbol of successful integration.

But she herself acknowledges a disconnect between France's egalitarian self-image and reality.

'Go back to your country'

"We have to close the gap that too many students experience between the principles of the republic on the one hand and their daily reality on the other," she said last week.

Ahmed, Fatima and Kevin all have stories to tell about being made to feel less equal - in the boys' cases because of their skin colour, in Fatima's case because she wears a headscarf.

An "old guy" on a bus once told Fatima to "go back to your country", she recalls.

"You should have reached for this," Ahmed says, unzipping his jacket slowly and slipping a hand with pretended menace into an inside breast pocket to pull out his ID card.

For Hebert, the teacher, instead of coming down hard on children with radical views the state should encourage the free speech for which nearly 4 million people marched in France on January 11.

The top priority, however, she says, should be throwing the book at improving the reading and writing of children from families where French is a second language, to give them "words to defend themselves to the violence of words".

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