Politics / Religion / Society

Secularism in French Schools

The concept of French Laïcité and its effects on young Muslims’ identities and experience of citizenship

by Marie Baleo

Inside a French classroom. Image © AFP.

Inside a French classroom. Image © AFP.

In 2015, fifteen-year-old Sarah, a French Muslim high school girl living in Charleville-Mézières (France), was sent home from school for wearing a maxi skirt (read: a skirt that reaches her ankles) deemed ostentatoire, a French word for manifestly religious signs (clothing, jewelry and the likes) which do not belong in the French public space. The incident spurred indignation and amusement in the media, as Sarah reported that the skirt was a very simple black maxi skirt purchased in a well-known French store. This incident serves as yet another reminder of the unease French schools feel towards Islam, and of the tension between the pivotal French concept of laïcité and the reality of the existence of religious belief.

The concept of laïcité is an ideological pillar of the French école de la République (“school of the Republic”), founded by Jules Ferry. It involves a strict separation between religion (confined to the private sphere) and the public sphere. By implying that school is not the preferable forum for discussing the comparative value or inherent relevance of various religions, laïcité willingly ignores the importance of religious belief in individual identity. The refusal to address the place of religion in self-definition leads school to silence the existence of social differences based on religious factors. But reality beyond school’s confines is dramatically different from the French Republic as depicted in textbooks, and there is no denying the acuteness of differences in social statuses, as well as the reality of discrimination based on religious grounds. In spite of this, the école de la République continues to artificially level cultural and social differences by presenting young minds with an idealized image of a standardized French citizen, devoid of gender, racial or religious identity, and whose only affiliation is to the Republic and its founding principles. Thus, laïcité in schools produces a dual effect, with both negative and positive implications for self-identification of young Muslims and their self-perception in relation to society and their own families.

Sarah in her “religious” maxi skirt. Image © PHOTOPQR/L'UNION DE REIMS LEVY GUILLAUME / L'UNION L'ARDEN

Sarah in her “religious” maxi skirt. Image © PHOTOPQR/L’UNION DE REIMS LEVY GUILLAUME / L’UNION L’ARDEN

Laicïté formally separates the State and the civil society from religion and religious institutions. A closer examination of the history of laicïté in France reveals the length and gradual nature of the process of secularization of the State. Laïcité is the direct legacy of the ideals of the 1789 French Revolution and of the Declaration of Human Rights, which established freedom of consciousness and equality of rights. Links between the State and the Catholic Church were severed during the 19th century, following a century-long conflict between republican anticlericalism and Catholicism[1]. The Third Republic reformed the organization of the educational system, and Minister of Education Jules Ferry pioneered the creation of a “public, “laïque” and obligatory” school. Gambetta, another central figure of this movement, thought of laïcité as a means to repel clericalism[2].

Gambetta, Ferry and their political allies aimed to create ideal patriots and citizens of the Republic. They undertook a reform of public education in the 1880s that ultimately succeeded in showing that morals could be effectively instilled into children’s minds without the use of religion. The teaching of religious morals was abolished and replaced with a “moral and civic education”. This movement towards laïcité eventually led to the 1905 law of separation between the Church and State. Its appearance in the first article of the 1946 Constitution of the Fourth Republic (reiterated in the Preamble of the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic) signaled the triumph of laïcité in the French ideology: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic[3]. The intricate historical context of the adoption of laïcité provides a valuable explanation for the denial of religious and cultural peculiarities which may be observed today within schools and state-run institutions.

A portrait of Jules Ferry by Léon Bonnat (1888), image via Wikipedia

A portrait of Jules Ferry by Léon Bonnat (1888), image via Wikipedia

The prime manifestation of laïcité can be found in the curricula designed by the Ministry of Education from elementary school to high school and the baccalaureate. Instead of a discussion of religion as a personal belief, syllabi mostly cover historical depictions of religious events. Students’ first encounter with religion and the concept of laïcité actually occurs in 6ème, with students typically aged 10-11. 20% of the history curriculum in 6ème is devoted to the historical beginnings of Judaism and Christianity, with students reading excerpts from the Old and New Testament while studying the historical context surrounding the production of these writings. Interestingly, in spite of the close geographical and historical links between all three monotheistic religions, Islam is only mentioned in the following grade. Even though the same observation can be made regarding educational systems in the Anglo-American and German tradition, presenting all three monotheisms on the same grounds would seem a more logical approach based on the historical, geographic and philosophical similarities between them. In this regard, Islam finds itself treated differently from Christianity and Judaism, insofar as school curricula arguably tend to regard it more as a social phenomenon than a religion.

A report published by the HALDE (Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité) pinpoints that the sensitization of students to discrimination in instruction civique textbooks does not sufficiently connect the principle of equality with discrimination[4]. Additionally, one of the items on the 5ème grade syllabus, entitled “Inequalities in Access to Education in France and in the World: Girls/Boys, Handicapped Children, Social Differences”, does not mention religious discriminations. Later in the school year, the course covers the topic of inequalities again, this time with a focus on the responsibility of citizens in the fight against inequalities. However, the example studied is that of gender-based inequalities instead of religious-based ones.

Finally, 5ème is also the year children are taught about the “multiple identities of the person”, as the curriculum highlights that “personal identity is rich in aspects: family, culture, religion, profession… it is built by choice”. This last part is a compelling statement, considering that discrimination often leads youths to feel as though others define their identity. For instance, young Muslims are mostly represented in the media by the smallest and most troublesome, fraction of Muslim youths in France, i.e., young Muslims born and raised in the infamous “banlieues” or more recently young French citizens traveling to Syria or carrying out terrorist attacks (Mohammed Merah, the Kouachi brothers, …). News coverage focuses solely on acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims youths, and never on the many aspects in which they resemble the rest of French youths. In the recent decade, TV channels have long portrayed young people “issus de l’immigration” (read: not part of the Ethnic majority) as car-burning delinquents, without caring to elaborate on the complicated yet enlightening political and social context surrounding these events.

Sample treatment of the theme of Islam in two prominent French magazines (“Burqa: what we are not telling”, “The islamist specter”, “The West against Islam”, “Fear of Islam”, …). Image via L’Obs.

Sample treatment of the theme of Islam in two prominent French magazines (“Burqa: what we are not telling”, “The islamist specter”, “The West against Islam”, “Fear of Islam”, …). Image via L’Obs.

Observing the representation of fellow young Muslims in the media and the way those representations shape the public’s image of them, Muslim youths may feel as though they are not free to define their identity on their own terms, and find themselves forced into a media-created mold. In spite of the obvious self-directed component of identity construction, the perception others have of these youths is bound to affect the construction of their identity to some extent, albeit in varying degrees. Additionally, éducation civique courses teach a uniform way of being a citizen that does not include any mention of religious identity. In an official letter to the professors of the Education Nationale, Christiane Menasseyre, Dean of Philosophy at the Inspection générale de l’Education nationale, addressed the complexity of reconciling laïcité with what she called “the religious fact”. She underlined the apparent paradox between laïcité in schools and the teaching of the religious fact, as she demonstrated that ensuring the scientific nature of such a teaching can be a complicated endeavor.

Recognizing discriminations on religious grounds is admitting that the Republic is not one, as it had hoped to be, and can therefore constitute a step towards endangering the cohesion of the public space. Thus, the denial of religion under the banner of “laïcité” (the “religious fact” is only alluded to in schools) is necessary in order to avoid a form of social collapse. The contrast between the State’s official discourse and its manifestation in school curricula on the one hand, and the undeniable reality of discrimination on religious grounds in France on the other manifests itself both in qualitative and quantitative ways. In recent years, France has witnessed a multiplication of violent acts of religious discrimination in the form of profanations of Muslim cemeteries and hate crimes directed specifically at Muslims. Furthermore, quantitative evidence and multiple widely publicized personal accounts shed light on religious discrimination in access to housing and employment.

French political scientist Olivier Roy argues that laïcité “defines national cohesion by asserting a purely political identity that confines to the private sphere any specific religious or cultural identities”[5]. The consequences of laïcité on young Muslims’ perception of themselves and the construction of their self-identity are ambiguous. Among the negative consequences of laïcité in schools is the ensuing discrepancy between young Muslims’ identity in school and at home, or more generally outside of school, in contact with French society. In the case of Islam, youths might find themselves in a conflicting position relative to their families who are more religious (i.e., who were educated in religious establishments, or received a religious upbringing in their country of origin, in the case of first-generation immigrants). However, the gap between their expectations (resulting from their education) and the unfairness of French society can lead to a religious reaction. This is not a result of the public school system, but of the discrepancy between normative ideas and positive observations.

The idealistic vision of the Republic taught in school does not prepare young French Muslims to face the outside world and its inherent inequalities, which, although they are regrettable and condemnable, are nonetheless a reality that must be contended with. The experience of unexpected discrimination in everyday life may create disappointment or disrespect towards an educational system that youths regard as hypocritical and which fails to recognize the experience of “otherness” that is a crucial part of their lives. On another level, the multiplication of hijab-wearing schoolgirls (about 20,000 primary and secondary schoolgirls in 2003) has brought religious identity back into the public sphere and can appear as a means to alleviate this perceived gap between being identified as a Muslim at home and in the eyes of the majority on the one hand, and having to be non-religious in school and in the public sphere on the other hand. Even though a great variety of factors must be considered when analyzing why girls and young women don the veil, this remains a possible motivation.

A French girl wearing a hijab at school in 2004. Image © Reuters/ Pascal Rossignol via IBT

A French girl wearing a hijab at school in 2004. Image © Reuters/ Pascal Rossignol via IBT

Nonetheless, the immersion of young Muslims in the laïque context of the école de la République also carries positive consequences for these children’s and young adults’ lives. By imparting to them a strong sense of justice and equality, conveyed for example by civic education (instruction civique) classes or through a particular viewpoint on French history (the ideals of the French Revolution and the Lumières), school might also give these French Muslim youths the precious intellectual weapons needed to fight the social discrimination they will encounter due to their religious identity.

One of school’s objectives in teaching laïcité and equality is to urge young Muslims never to accept this status quo, and this is precisely one of the positive effects of the French support of laïcité. The argument can be made that school strives to help young Muslim girls achieve better integration socially and professionally when one would think that wearing the veil might constitute a hindrance to finding employment in an environment marked by widespread religious discrimination.

Additionally, laïcité gives everyone, including young Muslims, the ideological, philosophical, intellectual weapons to understand how their treatment differs from what the law and founding values of the Republic dictate for its citizens. It allows them to become empowered and demand equal treatment on all grounds. In other words, it enables young French Muslims to pinpoint acts of discrimination, to recognize those as illegal, and to engage in appropriate responses, including legal or judicial action. For instance, a significant number of Muslim job applicants have found themselves invited to come in for an interview after submitting their résumé, only to find upon their arrival that they are no longer suitably qualified for the position. Education provides the tools needed to recognize some of these instances as cases of discrimination based on either religion or ethnicity, and to flag those cases as contrary to the values French youths are taught in school (equality of rights).

The general understanding of the side effects of laïcité on religious individuals needs to be taken a step further by focusing more on its positive implications. The public often imagines an ominous Muslim minority, with laïcité acting as a barrier protecting society from the pervasive emergence of Islam, which further sheds light on the necessity of highlighting the positive effects of laïcité on Muslim children as well.

Finally, the study of this topic touches on a broader yet crucial topic, which Olivier Roy phrases in the following way: “Is the debate about Islam concerned with the place of religion in French society, or, despite the apparent continuity, is Islam today seen as a different religion, the bearer of a specific threat?[6]. This broader societal question may move the focus from the attachment of the French to laïcité as a principle to the relationship of the French to Islam in particular.

Ultimately, laïcité is part of a broader trend in French historical and State ideology of ignoring differences in the name of the intellectual principle of perfect equality. Proof of that is the impossibility to even consider asking a French citizen to identify their ethnicity in administrative forms. This ideological reluctance to acknowledging differences is an obstacle to the construction of young Muslims’ identities, insofar as religion is a part of those identities. Figuring out how to tackle the topic of religious beliefs within public schools remains a challenging task that may involve rethinking the very foundations of the modern French republic.


[1] See: Dansette, Adrien. Histoire religieuse de la France contemporaine (sous la IIIème République). Paris: Flammarion, 1951, Livre Troisième, IV, p. 614.

[2] See: Roy, Olivier. Secularism Confronts Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 2.

[3] Official French-to-English translation provided by the French National Assembly website, see: Assemblée Nationale. Constitution of October 4, 1958. 2009. http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/english/8ab.asp (accessed November 15, 2009).

[4] See: HALDE (Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité). Stéréotypes dans les manuels scolaires. 2007. http://www.halde.fr/spip.php?page=article_domaine&id_article=12608&id_mot=4 (accessed December 2, 2009).

[5] See: Olivier Roy, Secularism Confronts Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. xiii.

[6] See: Roy, Olivier. Secularism Confronts Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, p.2.


– Chanet, Jean-François, and Denis Pelletier. “La laïcité à l’épreuve de la sécularisation 1905-2005.” Vingtième Siècle – Revue d’histoire, 2005: 7-10.

– Chérifi, Hanifa. “Islam et intégration à l’école.” Revue européenne des migrations internationales, 2001: 175-182.

– Dansette, Adrien. Histoire religieuse de la France contemporaine (sous la IIIème République). Paris: Flammarion, 1951.

– Eduscol, Ministère de l’Education nationale. Laïcité et enseignement du fait religieux. 2009. http://eduscol.education.fr/cid46337/laicite-et-enseignement-du-fait-religieux.html.

– Académie Francaise. Dictionnaire de l’Académie Français, Huitième Edition. Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1932-1935.

– Laurence, Jonathan, and Justin Vaisse. Integrating Islam – Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2006.

– HALDE (Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité). Stéréotypes dans les manuels scolaires. 2007. http://www.halde.fr/spip.php?page=article_domaine&id_article=12608&id_mot=4.

– Assemblée Nationale. Constitution of October 4, 1958. 2009. http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/english/8ab.asp.

– Ministère de l’Education nationale. Ministère de l’Education nationale. November 2009. http://www.education.gouv.fr/.

– —. Programme du collège – Programme des Enseignements d’Histoire-Géographie-Education Civique. 2009. http://media.education.gouv.fr/file/special_6/51/6/Programme_hist_geo_education_civique_6eme_33516.pdf.

– Roy, Olivier. Secularism Confronts Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.


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