Public Schools: Where New Citizens Are Made

“The challenge facing the inclusive school is therefore not to oppose cultures and traditions, but to start from the principle that each culture contributes a part of the order to forge a common feeling of belonging that does not deny the diversity of identities.”– Jean-Louis Auduc


In the school setting, children of immigrants meet other French students and are introduced to the democratic principles of secular France: the ideas that all citizens have equal rights and that France maintains a separation between church and state so that people are free to choose their beliefs without interference. The secular nature of school is believed to be central to the proper integration of France’s future citizens, and many in France believe that the success of this process depends on the neutrality (or, in this case, non-religious climate) of schools; religion, in short, has no room in public education.

The exclusion of religion from schools dates back to the late-eighteenth-century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment and to the French Revolution that began in 1789. In reality, however, the separation of church and state was made into law only in 1905. But the Enlightenment view that students must be protected from ideological influences that may distort the truth continues to influence discussion about education to this day. The principles of laïcité(secularity) in schools, writes scholar Joan Wallach Scott, “dated to the...[Jules] Ferry laws (1881–82, 1886), which made primary education a requirement for boys and girls and which effectively banished from the classroom religion as a subject and priests and nuns as teachers.”1

Before the Ferry laws, education in France was dominated by the Catholic Church. From the perspective of Jules Ferry, Minister of Education at the time these laws were passed,

[T]he school was to be the agent of assimilation; the goal of its pedagogy was to instill a common republican political identity in children from a diversity of backgrounds. The school was to effect a transition from private to public, from the world of the locality and the family to that of the nation. Teachers were the crucial element in this process—secular missionaries, charged with converting their pupils to the wonders of science and reason....A shared language, culture, and ideological formation—and so a nation one and indivisible—was to be the outcome of the educational process. Schools were instruments for constructing the nation...the privileged site where differences were contained and transformed into Frenchness.2


In the eyes of most French, schools continue to be the place where future French citizens are made. In the mid-1990s, when passionate debates about headscarves filled the airwaves, the Ferry assimilation model was routinely invoked. Although this time the target was no longer the Catholic Church—it was the immigrants from Muslim countries—the rhetoric remained similar. In 1994, Education Minister François Bayrou issued a memorandum distinguishing between “discreet” symbols, which could be tolerated in public schools, and “ostentatious” symbols, including the Islamic veils, which were to be banned (this memo foreshadowed the ban of 2003). Defending French secularity, Bayrou argued that in France,

...the national and republican projects have been identified with a certain idea of citizenship. This French idea of the nation and republic by nature respects all convictions, particularly religious and political beliefs and cultural traditions. But it rules out the breaking down of the nation into separate communities which are indifferent to one another, and which respect only their own rules and laws and only engage in a simple coexistence. The nation is not only a group of citizens who hold individual rights. It is a community with a [common] destiny. This ideal is constructed firstly at school. School is the space which more than any other involves education and integration where all children and all youth are to be found, learning to live together and respect one another....This secular and national ideal is the very substance of the republican school and the foundation of its duty of civic education.3

More than 200 years after the Revolution, France is facing new challenges around the issue of religion. In addition to the tensions surrounding the Muslim immigrants and their sons and daughters, schools also face tensions between different minorities.

A great number of people in France now believe that religion is threatening the mission of educating new French citizens. Although public schools suffer from a lack of resources, teacher shortages, and violence, many teachers continue to believe that religious tensions are the source of the problem and argue that the cultivation of a “common culture” is their most important challenge. In a number of testimonies, American scholar Trica Keaton had teachers report on their classroom experience. One literature teacher explained:

We are told we are supposed to take children and turn them into citizens. The school is there to make you a citizen, to make you French, which means speaking the language and knowing [traditional] French culture. This is what we try to convey through education.4

Resisting the idea of “multiculturalism” (which many in France feel threatens community cohesion), the French school curriculum focuses on the values associated with the “Republic”: secularism and the concepts of liberty, equality, and brotherhood (in French,&liberté, égalité, fraternité—principles that originated in the French Revolution). Schools also highlight French literature and history, with the idea of promoting a “common culture” among their students. A history professor shared his thoughts on this issue:

I ask myself, is a common the school and by national education...deculturing [taking cultural identity away from] those who have their own culture? Personally, I think the answer is yes....I believe with all my heart that it’s a good thing. It’s good because I am profoundly republican and laïque (secular), through my education, through the way I function as a citizen and as a human being....I think that our society has arrived at a point where it seems that our standards for a common culture, so that they harmonize, must go through a de-Christianization, a de-Islamization, among other things. I mean that the deculturation, or acculturation [training people in a common culture]...can lead to that common cement that binds us.5

An increasing number of educators see the schools’ mission in a different light. They emphasize the importance of teaching mutual respect between mainstream culture and minority culture. They also criticize those parts of the public schools’ curriculum that ignore the painful period when France colonized countries in Africa and Asia. Jean- Louis Auduc, assistant director of the Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres de Créteil (a teacher training institute), argues that educating new citizens “ based on those non-negotiable values which are the basis for a social democracy: rejection of racism or sexism, respect for human rights.”6

He explains:

Schools must be places of understanding, of knowledge of other cultures, especially to bring their pupils to understand the part each culture occupies in the whole....The struggle against racism, anti-semitism, discriminatory practices is everybody’s business, not just the business of the individual communities concerned....The challenge facing the inclusive school is therefore not to oppose cultures and traditions, but to start from the principle that each culture contributes a part of the order to forge a common feeling of belonging that does not deny the diversity of identities.7

Luis Cardoso, a history and geography teacher at the Gabriel-Havez Middle School, has followed this issue since the first "headscarf affair" arose in France in 1989. In an interview, Cardoso argued that “though the headscarf need not be condemned, it is nevertheless capable of generating conflict of moderate or long duration in [poor] neighborhoods where the problems are already numerous and often exacerbated.” But he continued,

The debate about religion and public school is just one of many problems we must face on an everyday basis. These problems, which take a toll on the students, are domestic, social, and racial; delinquency and violence also play large roles. In this climate, the children of North African origin do not pose any more problems than do the other kids. To suggest the opposite seems false to me, as does the suggestion that the majority of them are failing out of school. . . .[But those] who think that the issues are simple and straightforward and that everyone should just be allowed to do as they please, to be exempt from all rules, should come and spend a little time in Creil and rub up [against] the reality of the situation.8

Excerpted from Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion. Copyright © 2006 by Indiana University Press. Reprinted by permission from The Politics of the Veil. Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press.


  • anti-semitism : A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for why things go wrong. It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
  • laïcité : French for “secularity.” The term comes from the word lay or laity, which refers to Christians who did not belong to religious orders or to the clergy. Secularism is used to describe governments that maintain a separation of church and state. Countries such as France, which upholds this separation, ask believers to practice their religion for the most part in private. While generally the term refers to the neutrality of the state toward religious groups, some in France interpret it as the Republic’s official culture.
  • 1 : Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 99.
  • assimilation : A process through which immigrants accept the national culture of the host country and give up their former national identity.
  • 2 : Scott, The Politics of the Veil, 98 –99.
  • 3 : François Bayrou, as quoted by Meira Levinson, “Liberalism Versus Democracy? Schooling Private Citizens in the Public Square,” British Journal of Political Science 27 (1997): 352. We thank Levinson for her help with these readings.
  • 4 : Trica Danielle Keaton, Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 92.
  • multiculturalism : An ideology and social policy that assumes that a society can have multiple cultural identities. In such a society, citizens maintain their group identity alongside their national identity. As an integration policy, multiculturalism attempts to create a two-way dialogue between the communities of newcomers (or minorities) and the rest of the population. In contrast, assimilation means that newcomers give up their minority’s identity and are expected to blend in.
  • 5 : Quoted in Keaton, Muslim Girls and the Other France, 103.
  • 6 : Jean-Louis Auduc, “Forging a Common Sense of Belonging: Respecting the Diversity of Identities,” Prospects 36, no. 3 (September 2006): 322.
  • 7 : Ibid., 323, 326.
  • 8 Luis Cardoso, “At the Heart of the ‘Affair’: A Professor from Creil Provides Testimony,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Veil Conference, 2000.

Connection Questions

  1. What was the role of public education, according to nineteenth-century Education Minister Jules Ferry? What do you see as the role of education in a multiethnic, multireligious society?
  2. Why did Education Minister François Bayrou think, in 1994, that education should be protected from the influence of religion?
  3. Teachers in France are required to educate new citizens. What do you think this means? What values are they expected to teach their students? Is that the role of teachers in your society?
  4. One of the teachers seems to imply that he believes a common culture can only exist in a society without religion. Do you agree with this position?
  5. At the heart of the debate about France’s “common culture” lies the question of language. French identity (and this is true for other countries, as well) is linked to a standard, or official, language. As one teacher reported, teachers in immigrant neighborhoods are keen to make their students aware of the disadvantages of using slang:
These are students from Seine-Saint-Denis...[I]t means that they are students who have their own language...the language of the cité [housing project]. So my role is to make them understand that there is a place where you can speak like that and other places where you must not speak like that, where you cannot. I have to show them continually that they can express themselves, but that they don’t have to be taken for a fool, if they speak normally not like they do in the cité...So I have to make them understand that they are not going to find a job if they continue to speak like that. You see, it’s not only a question of vocabulary, if you will, it’s also a question of attitude, clothing, the way they dress.1

How important is it to learn the language, customs, and ideas that are used by mainstream society? Does adopting the dress, language, and culture of the mainstream make you a “sellout”?


  • Seine-Saint-Denis is an administrative department of France, northeast of Paris, often called simply “the 93” (le neuf trois), a reference to its administrative number. In recent decades it has been populated by many immigrants, much like other suburbs (banlieues) on the outskirts of Paris and other metropolitan areas. The 2005 riots that started in Clichy-sous-Bois—one of the communes that make up Seine- Saint-Denis—indicate some of the social and ethnic tensions in the district.
  • 1 Quoted in Keaton, Muslim Girls and the Other France, 109.

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