The government minister of youth, Sarah El Haïry, in her thirties and herself the child of immigrants like many there, had come to listen to them and told them: do.
Instead, the October meeting quickly turned into a grudge, exposing the gulf between France’s Republican values and the emerging sensibilities of a new generation. The teens have been adamant that their day-to-day lives have little to do with the minister’s vision of France – a conspicuously secular, color blind and equal opportunity nation.
When the minister started to sing “La Marseillaise”, some refused. A veiled young woman said to him, “I will never sing it.
France’s lofty universalist ideals have long sought to secure individual rights and social unity precisely by ignoring religion, race, gender, and other differences. El Haïry herself embodied and praised the possibility that these ideals offered to some.
Today, these values are more likely to be met with skepticism by a younger generation who, according to polls, harbor more liberal attitudes towards race, religion and gender in a diverse society. The age difference between the minister and her audience – only about 15 years – was in itself a measure of how quickly things were moving.
The meeting, at a high school in Poitiers, came at a sensitive time – days after a teacher was beheaded by an extremist Islamist for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a free speech class.
The clash took place just as the government began a broad crackdown on what it described as radical Muslim groups. It is 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 gap that has not closed in the months that followed.
Some white teens were much more sensitive to issues of social injustice through social media. Others were the children of working-class immigrants from France’s former African colonies who, unlike their parents, did not hesitate to focus 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 the government of President Emmanuel Macron, could have been the wildly successful older sister. many people there. But there were also clear differences. His family was well off, his father was a doctor and went to work in Africa and his mother and stepfather ran a restaurant in Casablanca.
Politically, she had espoused clear and conservative positions since at least high school, recalled classmates at the prestigious Lyautey high school in Casablanca, where she spent part of her teenage years. Unlike the teenagers she faced in Poitiers, El Haïry strongly embraced France’s noble universalist ideals.
France, she said in an interview with her office in Paris, represented a “chance”.
She said, “He doesn’t look at you with your religion. He doesn’t look at you for the color of your skin. He does not look at you from the position of your parents. It gives you the chance to be a full citizen and to build yourself in this pact.
This was not how the teenagers saw it.
One of those present was Jawan Moukagni, now 16, the daughter of a white Frenchwoman and an immigrant from a former French colony in Central Africa. As far back as she can remember, she had wanted to join the gendarmerie.
She grew up as a practicing Catholic, but the many West African immigrants to her neighborhood in Poitiers sparked an interest in Islam in her.
Jawan saw it from both sides. At school, where strict secularism in France prohibits the wearing of any visible religious sign, some of her teachers said nothing when she wore a cross but when she saw Muslim friends wearing a veil in public, she said. seen how many French people considered it radioactive.
On the eve of the minister’s visit, Jawan searched for her online.
She remembers, “I was like, ‘She’s young, maybe she’ll understand our problems.’ “
In video clips of the minister’s visit, one of the more outspoken speakers was 15-year-old Carla Roy. Carla said she listened with “a sense of unfairness” to teens who had been discriminated against. She had never known her herself as a white girl having grown up in a small village, Peyrins, in the south-east.
It wasn’t until the months leading up to the conference, as she watched videos of George Floyd’s murder last year, that Carla had become more aware.
She says, “I am white, I have privileges and I have never been detained.
Carla and two others took the stage to reveal to the minister proposals the teens voted on. The most popular plans called for more religious education in schools and better police training.
They also wanted to be allowed to wear visible religious symbols in high school – a break from current law but an idea supported by 52% of high school students, according to a recent poll.
While the adolescents’ proposals were based on their personal experience, they felt that El Haïry responded with abstractions.
A teenager, Oumar N’Diaye, 19, recounted how police arrested him nine times in the previous two months to verify his identity, a deep source of injustice and resentment among minorities in France.
In response, El Haïry told the students that the police “can’t be racist because it’s republican” but there were “black sheep” among the police, she said, as elsewhere in society. .
Carla wouldn’t have it. “When you go through an identity check nine times in two months because of the color of your skin, I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t think it’s a black sheep,” he said. she declared to the minister.
Recently, Carla said she felt 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 was supposed to answer questions, left the gymnasium to speak with the few journalists present, leaving the audience confused and angry.
Oumar hoped the minister would return. Back at his home in Pau, in the south of France, he said of the police: “The fact that she is republican does not prevent her from being racist.
The son of Senegalese immigrants, Oumar says white and black police asked him if he was a Muslim during the nine stops. When he answered yes, the tone of the officers changed, often abandoning the polite “you” when addressing him, he said.
During the meeting, seeing the minister return, Oumar buttoned her up and asked her what would happen to their proposals.
He said: “I’m sorry, Minister, but I have the impression that everything we have done this week has been for nothing.
In Pau, Oumar added: “If we were against the republic, we would not have come together to seek solutions to improve it.
But the minister was so disturbed by the teenagers’ comments that she later ordered a government inquiry into the conference. His office wrote in a letter that their comments “revealed complete ignorance and worrying indifference to Republican principles.”
Investigators finally blamed the organizers of the event for not having educated young people on Republican values.
When the report was published, the minister told the French media: “Not a single euro of public money should go to the enemies of the Republic.
These events have been organized for a decade by the Federation of Social and Sociocultural Centers of France, a politically neutral private organization which manages 1,250 points of sale.
Organizers refuted the critics, saying most of the teens had spent their lives in public schools where these values were taught. The teenagers’ comments were a barometer of France’s social problems, said Tarik Touahria, the president of the federation, who had “turned into a problem, into a disease”.
Michaël Foessel, philosopher at the École Polytechnique, declared that French republicanism was called into question precisely because it failed to integrate the children of immigrants and because in the name of unity, it increasingly called for more uniformity.
Foessel says: “When the word ‘republic’ is used in a context where, each time, it designates standards, constraints, obligations of behavior, it should not be surprising that it arouses less and less ‘memberships.
The teenagers who traveled to Poitiers have kept in touch, mainly on social media, and some are preparing a refutation of the report.
Oumar shares an apartment in Pau with his fiancee, a woman of Algerian descent whom he met at an annual gathering three years ago. Clara is “outraged” by what she heard in Poitiers, her mother says, and is now preparing for another rally.
Jawan converted to Islam a few days after the rally ended. She now has doubts about becoming a gendarme for the army because she “didn’t want to work for a country that doesn’t love me”.
She says: “I often say that I am in love with a republic that does not love me in return.
This article originally appeared in Le New York Times.