On a rainy November afternoon in Grigny, a poor suburb about an hour south of Paris, 30 students at Pablo Neruda Middle School were debating laïcité, France’s stringent concept of state secularism. Their teacher, Leïla Simon, had passed out copies of an article about a dispute in Ploërmel, a town in Brittany, where in October 2017 a government commission determined a stone cross should be removed from a statue of Pope John Paul II. Many Ploërmel residents, however, argued that the cross is a fixture of their region’s heritage, and should remain.
Amid the near-constant media frenzy over challenges to laïcité, the Ploërmel disagreement was relatively minor. It’s been overshadowed by a much bigger fight: The place of Muslims, an estimated 9 percent of the French population, in the secular Republic. Recently, laïcité has been at the heart of controversies over, for example, street prayers in the Paris suburb of Clichy or whether mothers wearing a headscarf should be allowed to accompany their children on school field trips.
That excessive focus on Islam is why Simon, 30, considered the story an appropriate way to launch a discussion among her students, the majority of whom come from Muslim families and are either first-generation immigrants or immigrants themselves. It was an opportunity to disentangle laïcité from its charged, politicized context—in which her students are often targeted—and to talk about it in terms of religion more generally, not just Islam.
As they examined the situation in far-off Ploërmel, Simon’s students quickly realized that it paralleled laïcité’s presence in their own lives, notably their obligation to keep their religious beliefs out of the classroom. “It makes sense that they would keep the cross,” Yaël said from the back of the room. “We’re in France.” He rolled his eyes. “Are they going to take down the Notre Dame too?” One of his classmates, who hadn’t stopped squirming since the class began, disagreed: “It’s disrespectful to other religions. That’s why we don’t show our beliefs at school.” The momentary calm that Simon had managed to create dissolved into chatter.
“I changed my mind!” Yaël blurted out. “It’s better to keep religion in private, to avoid conflict. See, now everyone is fighting!” The room quieted down as his classmates agreed. But Salima, who removes her headscarf before entering Pablo Neruda every morning as the result of a 2004 ban on “ostensible” religious symbols in public schools, dissented: “I don’t want to be cut off from my religion.”
A boy across the room jumped out of his seat. “But when people see the veil they think of terrorists!” All the kids laughed.
In that classroom in Grigny, students chipped away at a national dilemma: whether France’s vision of equality among citizens, to which laïcité is central and difference is downplayed, can withstand, or should accommodate, public displays of religion. My interviews with dozens of middle-school and high-school students in the greater Paris region as well as the hundreds of questionnaires I asked pupils to complete reveal a tendency to reduce laïcité to the 2004 law, and therefore to see the concept as a limitation, not a freedom. But those students also largely defend the principle as a guarantee of the right to believe or not believe. Equally significant, though, is the sense that laïcité has been weaponized against Muslims.