French Catholic school a refuge for Muslims

FRANCE NOW: With just five Muslim schools in France, Catholic institutions can offer Muslims what the public system lacks, writes…

FRANCE NOW:With just five Muslim schools in France, Catholic institutions can offer Muslims what the public system lacks, writes RUADHÁN Mac CORMAICin Marseille

IT’S THE Friday before mid-term break at Tour Sainte, and there’s a giddy mood in the yard as the children file out past Stéphane Thiébaut, the school principal. “Bonnes vacances,” he calls out to the parents and teachers milling about in the spring sunshine.

Tour Sainte has some of the best views in Marseille, its hilltop perch giving a wide panorama of the city and the Mediterranean. Birds are singing from the trees in the yard, while the glare of the warm sun against the peach buildings accentuates the calm. ‘We have built ourselves a little oasis of peace,” Thiébaut remarks. He is referring to the school’s location, in the middle of Marseille’s northern suburbs, considered the poorest and toughest part of the city. The street that leads to the heavily fortified school gate is known as a spot for drug-deals; at a nearby underpass two people were shot dead in a gangland dispute last year.

Of the 800 pupils attending the three private Catholic schools on the Tour Sainte complex – a primary school, a lycée (secondary school) and a collège – about 30 per cent come from homes where both parents are unemployed. And yet it’s not the socio-economic profile of its students that stands out, but their religion. In the lycée, 50 per cent of pupils are Muslim; in the collège, the proportion is closer to 80 per cent.


“We’re a Catholic school. We don’t doubt our faith or our personal choices. But beyond that, we feel no reason to be afraid of others,” says Thiébaut, a jovial and charismatic man who has been principal here for eight years. “I’m delighted to have people of other religions. It leads to very interesting debates.”

Of the major French institutions, few have played a more symbolically important role as guarantor of the republican ideal than the public school.

Marked out in every city, town and village by a large tricolour mounted above the door, the republican school – free, secular and open to all – was designed as a place where the state’s guiding principles could be passed down, where children would learn to become citizens.

Public school is where the great majority (83 per cent) of French children are educated, but the popularity of the 8,300 private Catholic schools that account for most of the remaining 17 per cent reveals something of the challenges facing laïcité, or French secularism.

The student profile in Catholic schools, just as in the public system, varies widely across the country. Some of the best-known in the major cities are the selective, middle-class lycées that have a strong record of feeding pupils into elite colleges and where places – as for the most famous public schools – are in heavy demand.

With just five Muslim schools in France, however, Catholic establishments have also become a refuge for Muslims seeking what the public system lacks.

At Tour Sainte, according to Thiébaut, that means a secure environment.

“The main reason is fear of violence in public schools in the area,” he says. The complex is surrounded by high walls, a security guard is posted at the entrance and CCTV cameras are trained on the main buildings.

“The second reason is that we’re religious. That we understand religion. For example, at Eid, many of our children are absent. I’ve never punished a pupil who was absent due to a religious feast. They appreciate that.”

Echata Muhammed, originally from the Comoros and with two daughters in the lycée, says, “I’m very happy with the school. I told my children: you’re going there to learn politeness and respect.

“It’s strict, and I also sent them there because the two religions have to get along.”

Tour Sainte has undergone huge changes since it opened 61 years ago on the site of an old orphanage. Back then this was a chic area, and the pupils came mostly from rich families. With the Évian accords that ended the Algerian war in 1962, however, Marseille received large numbers of Pieds-Noir (French citizens who lived in Algeria) as well as immigrants from the former colony, and the state had to build housing to accommodate the new arrivals. The northern suburbs grew rapidly.

The school grounds may feel like an oasis, Thiébaut remarks as we stroll around empty playing pitches, but the neighbourhood’s problems are never far away. Riot police had to be called last year when pupils from a nearby school marched towards Tour Sainte with iron bars after a dispute flared up on Facebook.

Thiébaut recalls taking a call from the authorities last year about a 17-year-old African pupil who, it turned out, was in the country illegally. If the boy didn’t get his baccalauréat, the equivalent of the Leaving Cert, the police said, they would deport him. “I brought the boy in and told him. He said, ‘Monsieur, if I don’t get the bac, I’m going to kill myself’. I can tell you that the day of the results, when I saw he had passed, I cried.”

In return for Catholic schools teaching the national curriculum and being open to students of all faiths, the state pays teachers’ salaries and a per-student subsidy. The schools supplement that income with fees – albeit much lower than for private schools in Ireland and other countries.

The annual fee at Tour Sainte is €70, or €140 if the child has lunch in the canteen.

Some within French Catholicism have recently questioned the integrity and quality of religious convictions that inform Catholic schools, but Thiébaut argues his school simply had to adapt to its student profile.

In addition to catechism for Catholic children, he created a mandatory class called “religious and human instruction”, which is a forum for exchanges about faith. “My way of thinking is not, ‘These little Muslims are going to become little Catholics’. Certainly not . . . You could define it as Christian anthropology. It’s an approach founded on Christian values, but that doesn’t seek to convert people.”

Since 2004, headscarves have been banned by law in public schools, but private establishments are not bound by the ban and have taken varied approaches. Thiébaut opted to ban all headgear, and says it was enforced without dissent. “But if I see a child arrive with a big cross on his chest, I would also ask him to take it off, because I don’t want to upset other children in that way.

“For me it’s about not imposing things on other people . . . Here, I want everyone to be free.”


PADDY SHERLOCK, a musician and actor, has been in France for 25 years. He lives in the Paris suburb of Meudon with his partner and two children.

"I was looking for adventure when I came here in the 80s. Everybody was going to London, Boston and New York, but France had a romantic appeal to me.

"I started busking as soon as I got here, and the music just worked. Once I realised I was making a living out of music, and I learned that very fast, I was definitely staying. Within the second week in Paris, I was in a group, and there's been no looking back since.

"There was something grim about Ireland when I left it. I love going back, seeing my family, going walking in Ireland, but for me it's too remote.

"There are a lot of things I prefer about here. I very much like the secular side of French society. That's important for me and for my kids' schooling.

"The fact that schools are mixed is important too. I've been in hospital a couple of times and I've gotten in in no time, got out and had nothing to pay. Education is free. The public facilities are fabulous.

"I remember, when I got here, being struck by the idealism. You had people on TV, and whether they were left-wing or right-wing, they seemed to be driven by the ideal that you could make society better.

"It seems that might have changed now. It think they feel the best they can do now is just hang on to what they've got, which is a pity.

"I've got friends on the left and right, and none of them seems to be particularly inspired by what's going on."