For French Muslims, A Catholic Education

September 25, 2008

Author: Katrin Bennhold

Source: International Herald Tribune

The bright cafeteria of Saint Mauront Catholic school is conspicuously quiet: It is Ramadan and 80 percent of the students are Muslim. When the lunch bell rings, girls and boys stream out past the crucifixes and the large wooden cross in the corridor, heading for Muslim midday prayer.

"There is respect for our religion here," said Nadia Oualane, 14, her hair covered by a black headscarf.

"In the public school," she added, gesturing at nearby buildings, "I would not be allowed to wear a veil." Oualane, of Algerian descent, wants to be the first in her family to go to a university.

France has only four Muslim schools. So the 8,847 Roman Catholic schools have become a refuge for Muslims seeking what an overburdened, secularist public sector often lacks: spirituality, an environment in which good manners count alongside mathematics and higher academic standards.

There are no national statistics, but Muslim and Catholic educators estimate that Muslim students now form more than 10 percent of the two million students in Catholic schools. In ethnically mixed neighborhoods in Marseille and the industrial north, the share can be more than half.

The quiet migration to fee-paying Catholic schools highlights how hard it has become for state schools, long France's tool for integration, to keep their promise of equal opportunity - irrespective of color, creed or zip code.

Traditionally, the republican school, born of the French Revolution, was the breeding ground for citizens. The shift from these schools is another indication of the challenge facing the strict form of secularism known as "laïcité."

After centuries of religious wars and squabbles between the nascent republic and a meddlesome clergy, a 1905 law granted religious freedom in predominantly Roman Catholic France but also withdrew financial support and formal recognition from all faiths. Religious education and symbols were banned from public schools.

As France has become home to five million Muslims, Western Europe's largest such community, new fault lines have emerged. In 2004, a ban on the headscarf in state schools prompted an outcry and a debate about loosening interpretations of the 1905 law.