‘Attacks on secularism far outnumber reported incidents’

FIGAROVOX/INTERVIEW – The presence of Islamic clothing in schools is not a new phenomenon, explains the former Inspector General of National Education Jean-Pierre Obin. The culture of “no waves” undermines secularism and provokes the preventive self-censorship of teachers.

Jean-Pierre Obin is a former Inspector General of National Education. In 2004, he submitted a report on “signs and manifestations of religious belief in schools”. He is author of How Islamism was allowed to invade the school (Hermann editions, 2020).


FIGAROVOX. – In recent months, teachers and school staff have warned about the proliferation of Islamic clothing in schools. What does this reveal?

Jean-Pierre OBIN. – This is not a new phenomenon. Since the 2004 law (on the “wearing of signs or outfits evidencing religious affiliation” in schools, editor’s note) and its implementation, there have been many examples. These religious outfits can be a compromise in the minds of those who wore them, a compromise between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. But these signs arose out of a desire to show a politico-religious identity. The examples are diverse: the bandana, the winter hat, the long black dresses, the abaya.

I have no reliable figures on the multiplication of this phenomenon and, to tell the truth, it is difficult to get one. It is very possible that it will become more and more important and even more likely. If I refer to other indicators and in particular to the Ifop surveys on all attacks on secularism, these events are happening more and more often and are far more numerous than the reported incidents. The ministry’s figures don’t say much in absolute terms, but over time they probably reflect a deterioration.

You wrote a book called How Islamism was allowed to invade the school † Do you think the school is responsible for this situation?

It is obvious. This is of course not the cause of this situation, but politicians and institutions have part of the responsibility. This is exactly the subject of my book. This responsibility is permanent. It is clear that Jean-Michel Blanquer has made a great effort in reporting and helping teachers, but this remains very limited as long as the intermediate hierarchy in particular, but also the higher hierarchy, does not support teachers who face this damage. They are still in the “no waves” culture. This culture does not only influence Islamism or attacks on secularism. There is violence against teachers for other reasons. We saw the #pasdevague emerge a few years ago, but in reality it is an old culture in National Education.

The law states that all religious symbols are prohibited for students. There is no distinction between religious symbols. Everything can be a sign, it is the intention, the signified, and not the signifier that counts.

Jean Pierre Obin

How do these outfits undermine secularism?

They are breaking the law. The law states that all religious symbols are prohibited for students. Any conspicuous sign that can therefore be seen from afar has no place in school. There is no distinction between religious symbols. Anything can be a sign, it is the intent, the signified, not the signifier, that counts and there is no doubt about the meaning of these outfits. In addition, it seems that it is groups of students who wear them in a coordinated way. Propagandists encourage them to do this to affirm a Muslim identity. The denials that affirm that it is not religious but cultural cannot deceive anyone.

The law is simply not enforced if these outfits are allowed to multiply in schools and classrooms. Now we can come back to the origin of the law, back to its meaning. Why did the Stasi Commission choose to ask Jacques Chirac to legislate on this issue? It was a response to the social pressure exerted on high school and college girls of Muslim descent: their freedom of conscience was not guaranteed.

How to cure it? What measures can institutions or the Ministry of Education actually take?

The French school faces an offensive that has nothing French-French. All countries are affected by Islamism, especially the Muslim countries which are the first victims. It is an illusion to think that only France can defeat the Islamist offensive.

The question is how to participate in a more global resistance. Since my 2004 report, my last book and other publications, I have followed three main avenues to get the French school involved in this struggle.

Principals and inspectors must resolutely support the teachers who are on the front lines.

Jean Pierre Obin

First, the need for social diversity in schools. One cannot reasonably think that one can fight Islamism in circles where religious, social and cultural self-segregation prevails. In these cases, the students are immersed in this influence. Political scientist Hugo Micheron talks about it in his neighborhood survey. In addition, there are recent Ifop surveys of high school students showing that all attacks on secularism, which are increasingly numerous and varied in the classroom and outside the classroom, in relation to the teachings and rules of school life, are being widely more important on the part of Muslim students than other students. They are also much larger in sites in ZEPs, ie where this homogeneity partly predominates. The first thing to do, which is in line with the OECD recommendations for student success in general, is social diversity. There is no real policy that promotes social diversity. We could even say that the ZEP system can penalize social diversity: the more an establishment impoverishes, the more resources it has. In this logic, there is no benefit to bringing the middle class back into an establishment. We must answer this question for the success of the students and to remedy France’s very poor position in the academic performance of the students. It is necessary to attack the construction site of the social mix.

Second, the training of teachers who are at a loss today is essential. They are confused and react mainly through preventive self-censorship on a whole range of topics. In the latest Ifop survey of teachers for the Jean Jaurès Foundation, there are very disturbing figures about the development of preventive self-censorship of teachers. You have to train them and Jean-Michel Blanquer started it with the plan I proposed to him. We must continue and accelerate this four-year training plan for all national education staff.

The third course of action is to take control of the hierarchy. Principals and inspectors must resolutely support the teachers who are on the front lines. It is the teachers who suffer and if they are not supported, they suffer even more. If there is such a difference between the reality on the ground and the reports that go back to the hierarchy, it is because there is no trust, as the same FIFG study shows. We must radically and absolutely break with the culture of the step of the waves.

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