France’s Ideals Are a Harder Sell Among Diverse Youth

France has long sought to create a secular, colorblind republic. But a clash between a government minister and a youth conference shows how those values are being questioned by a new generation.

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POITIERS, France — It was supposed to be a feel-good meeting meant to encourage civic-mindedness. More than a hundred teenagers from all over France had spent two days tackling the delicate topic of religion and discrimination. The government minister of youth, in her early 30s and herself a child of immigrants like many there, had come to listen.

“I don’t have any big speeches to make,” said the minister, Sarah El Hairy.

Instead, the meeting last 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, colorblind and of equal opportunity.

When the minister started singing the national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” some refused. “I’ll never sing it,” one young woman in a Muslim veil told her.

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

Today those values are more likely to be met with skepticism by a younger generation that, according to polls, harbors 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, a city in western France, came at a sensitive moment — days after a middle-school teacher had been beheaded by an Islamist extremist for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of speech.

The clash, initially covered by only a few journalists, was eventually picked up by national news organizations, 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 Ms. El Hairy herself revealed a divide that has not healed in the intervening months.

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Sarah El Hairy, then a member of Parliament, in 2019 in Nantes, France. She is now the government’s minister of youth. Credit…Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto, via Getty Images

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.

Ms. El Hairy, 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, Morocco.

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

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

“It doesn’t look at you by your religion, it doesn’t look at you by the color of your skin, it doesn’t look at you by your parents’ standing,” she said. “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 national gendarmerie, France’s military police.

She grew up as a practicing Catholic, but the many West African immigrants in her neighborhood 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.

“I told myself, ‘She’s young,'” Jawan recalled, “‘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 said 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.

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Carla Roy, of Peyrins, said that during the minister’s visit, she listened with “a sense of injustice” to the teenagers who had faced discrimination. Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

It was only in the months before the conference, as she watched videos on TikTok and YouTube about the George Floyd killing last year in Minneapolis, that Carla had become more aware, she recalled in an interview on the sun-drenched patio of her family home.

“I’m white, I have privileges and I’ve never been detained,” she said.

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 percent of high school students, according to a recent poll.

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

A Black 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, the minister 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 color 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,” Carla said.

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Ms. El Hairy visiting students last fall during a tribute to the teacher who had been killed by an Islamist extremist.Credit…Sebastien Salom-Gomis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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

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

The son of immigrants from Senegal, Oumar said 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 said.

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

“I’m sorry, Madam Minister,” he said, “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 gotten together to look for solutions to make it better.”

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Oumar N’Diaye, 19, said the police had stopped him nine times in two months to check his identification, a source of resentment for minorities.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

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

Investigators eventually blamed the event’s organizers 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 Centers of France, a private, politically neutral organization that manages 1,250 outlets nationwide.

The organizers 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.”

Michael 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.

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

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

Oumar shares an apartment in Pau with his fiancee, a woman of Algerian descent he met at an annual gathering three years ago. Clara went back to her village “outraged” at what she had heard in Poitiers, her mother said, and was 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 French military because she “didn’t feel like working for a country that doesn’t love me.”

“I often say,” she said, “that I’m in love with a republic that doesn’t love me back.”

Norimitsu Onishi reported from Poitiers, Pau and Bordeaux, and Constant Meheut from Peyrins. Aida Alami contributed reporting from Casablanca, Morocco.

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