France’s idea of republic is proving hard to swallow for the youth

A meeting of more than 100 teenagers from all over France was meant to encourage civic-mindedness as they spent two days tackling the delicate topic of religion and discrimination.

The government minister of youth, Sarah El Haïry, in her early 30s and herself a child of immigrants like many there, had come to listen and told them: “I don’t have any big speeches to make.”

Instead, the meeting in October quickly turned rancorous, laying bare the gulf between France’s republican values and the emerging sensibilities of a new generation. The teenagers flatly said their daily lives had little to do with the minister’s vision of France – a nation ostensibly secular, colourblind and of equal opportunity.

When the minister started singing “La Marseillaise” some refused. One young woman in a veil told her: “I’ll never sing it.”

France’s lofty universalist ideals have long aimed to secure individual rights and social unity precisely by ignoring religion, race, gender and other differences. El Haïry herself embodied and extolled the possibility those ideals have offered to some.

Today, those values are more likely to be met with scepticism by a younger generation that, according to polls, harbours more liberal attitudes toward race, religion and gender in a diversifying society. The age difference between the minister and her audience – only about 15 years – was itself a measure of how quickly things were changing.

The meeting, in a high school gymnasium in Poitiers, came at a sensitive moment – days after a teacher had been beheaded by an Islamist extremist for showing caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of speech.

Carla and two others took the stage to reveal proposals to the minister that the teenagers had voted on. The most popular plans asked for more religious education in school and better police training

The clash was just as the government began a broad crackdown on what it described as radical Muslim groups. It became part of a fierce debate on Islam and its place in the French republic.

Recent interviews with key participants and El Haïry herself reveal a divide that has not healed in the intervening months.

Some of the white teenagers were much more attuned to issues of social injustice through social media. Others were children of working-class immigrants from France’s former African colonies who, unlike their parents, were not shy about zeroing in on the gap between France’s ideals and their daily lives.

Meeting a minister was to be the highlight of the event and El Haïry, 32, the daughter of Muslim immigrants from Morocco and one of the youngest members of President Emmanuel Macron’s government, could have been the wildly successful older sister of many people there. But there were also sharp differences. Her family was well-to-do, her father was a medical doctor who went to work in Africa and her mother and stepfather owned a restaurant in Casablanca.

Politically, she had espoused clear, conservative positions since at least high school, recalled classmates at the prestigious Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca, where she spent part of her adolescence. Unlike the teenagers she faced in Poitiers, El Haïry strongly embraced France’s lofty universalist ideals.

Youth minister Sarah El Haïry with centrist party leader Francois Bayrou (AFP via Getty Images)

France, she said in an interview at her office in Paris, represented a “chance”.

She said: “It doesn’t look at you by your religion. It doesn’t look at you by the colour of your skin. It doesn’t look at you by your parents’ standing. It gives you the chance to be a full citizen and to construct yourself in this pact.”

That was not how the teenagers saw it.

One of those who attended was Jawan Moukagni, now 16, the daughter of a white Frenchwoman and an immigrant man from a former French colony in central Africa. For as long as she could remember, she had wanted to join the gendarmerie.

She grew up as a practicing Catholic but the many West African immigrants in her neighbourhood in Poitiers sparked in her an interest in Islam.

Jawan saw things from both sides. At school, where France’s strict secularism forbids the wearing of any visible religious symbols, some of her teachers said nothing when she wore a cross but when she saw Muslim friends wear a veil in public, she saw how many French people treated it as radioactive.

On the eve of the minister’s visit, Jawan looked her up online.

She recalls: “I told myself, ‘She’s young, maybe she’ll understand our problems.’”

In video clips of the minister’s visit, one of the most outspoken speakers was Carla Roy, 15. Carla says she had listened with “a sense of injustice” to the teenagers who had faced discrimination. She had never known it herself as a white person growing up in a tiny village, Peyrins, in the southeast.

It was only in the months before the conference, as she watched videos about the George Floyd killing last year, that Carla had become more aware.

She says: “I’m white, I have privileges, and I’ve never been detained.”

Women in Paris demonstrate after a far-right politician asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to remove her headscarf (AFP via Getty Images)

Carla and two others took the stage to reveal proposals to the minister that the teenagers had voted on. The most popular plans asked for more religious education in school and better police training.

They also wanted to be allowed to wear visible religious symbols in high school – a break from the current law but an idea backed by 52 per cent of high school students, according to a recent poll.

While the teenagers’ proposals had been based on their personal experience, they felt El Haïry answered in abstractions.

A teenager, Oumar N’Diaye, 19, recounted how the police had stopped him nine times in the previous two months to check his identification, a deep source of injustice and resentment among minorities in France.

In response, El Haïry told the students that the police force “can’t be racist because it’s republican” but there were “black sheep” among the police, she said, like elsewhere in society.

Carla wouldn’t have it. “When you undergo an identity check nine times in two months because of the colour of your skin, I don’t think that’s right, and I don’t think it’s a black sheep,” she told the minister.

Recently, Carla said she felt that the minister had used her constant references to the “republic” almost as a shield.

“It means everything and nothing,” she says.

Finally, El Haïry, who had been expected to answer questions, left the gymnasium to talk to the few journalists present, leaving the audience confused and angry.

When the word ‘republic’ is used in a context where, each time, it means standards, constraints, behavioural obligations, one shouldn’t be surprised that it draws less and less support Michaël Foessel

Oumar hoped that the minister would return. Back home in Pau, southern France, he said of the police: “The fact that it’s republican doesn’t preclude the fact that it could be racist.”

The son of immigrants from Senegal, Oumar says that both white and Black police officers asked him whether he was Muslim during those nine stops. When he answered yes, the officers’ tone changed, often dropping the polite “vous” in addressing him, he says.

At the meeting, seeing the minister walk back in, Oumar buttonholed her and asked what would become of their proposals.

He said: “I’m sorry, Madam Minister but I have the impression that everything we did this week was for nothing.”

In Pau, Oumar added: “If we were against the republic, we wouldn’t have got together to look for solutions to make it better.”

But the minister was so disturbed by the teenagers’ comments that she later ordered a government investigation into the conference. Her office wrote in a letter that their comments, “revealed a complete ignorance and a worrying indifference toward republican principles”.

Investigators eventually blamed the event’s organisers for failing to instruct the youths on republican values.

As the report was released, the minister told the French news media: “Not a single euro of public money should go to the enemies of the republic.”

Such events have been put together for a decade by the Federation of Social and Sociocultural Centres of France, a private, politically neutral organisation that manages 1,250 outlets.

President Emmanuel Macron of whose government El Haïry is one of the youngest members (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The organisers rebutted the criticism, saying most of the teenagers had spent their lives in public schools where those values had been taught. The teenagers’ comments were a barometer of France’s social problems, said Tarik Touahria, the president of the federation, that had been “transformed into a problem, an illness”.

Michaël Foessel, a philosopher at the Ecole Polytechnique, said that French republicanism was being challenged precisely because it has failed to integrate children of immigrants and because, in the name of unity, it has increasingly called for more uniformity.

Foessel says: “When the word ‘republic’ is used in a context where, each time, it means standards, constraints, behavioural obligations, one shouldn’t be surprised that it draws less and less support.”

The teenagers who went to Poitiers have kept in touch, mostly on social media, and some are preparing a rebuttal to the report.

Oumar shares an apartment in Pau with his fiancée, a woman of Algerian descent he met at an annual gathering three years ago. Clara is “outraged” at what she had heard in Poitiers, her mother says, and is now getting ready for another gathering.

Jawan converted to Islam a few days after the end of the gathering. She now has second thoughts about becoming a gendarme for the military because she “didn’t feel like working for a country that doesn’t love me”.

She says: “I often say that I’m in love with a republic that doesn’t love me back.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.