Meeting of minds – Lara Marlowe on an Irish visit to a French vocational training school

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Josepha Madigan visited Paris a few days ago for a belated St Brigid's Day celebration, intended to showcase Ireland's work to promote gender equality.

A vocational training school in the poorest department of France might seem an unlikely field trip for Ireland's Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion.

The Lycée Théodore Monod is set amid dreary housing estates and surrounded by a high-security fence.

Devoted teachers do their best to help students grappling with, in some cases, homelessness, illegal immigrant status and language difficulties. Qualification as a receptionist, electrician, lift maintenance engineer or clothing designer can be the path to a better life for them.

The visit grew out of the friendship between Irish diplomat Laura Dagg and Samia Essabaa, an extraordinary teacher who became something of a celebrity when she started taking Muslim students to Auschwitz to prove to them that the Holocaust happened.

Essabaa, her fellow teachers and students raise funds for two trips abroad each year. In Morocco they took pride in the contribution of Moroccan soldiers to the liberation of France in the second World War. In Senegal and Guadeloupe, they studied the legacy of slavery.

A one-week trip to Dublin and Belfast is scheduled for spring 2023.

Josepha Madigan and Ambassador Niall Burgess chat for an hour with students who are mostly of African and Arab origin. Social mixity is a problem, Essabaa regretfully tells Madigan later. "We have no 'Franco-French' students. When white parents visit, they see Arabs and Blacks and they don't want to enroll their children."

“There is a predominantly Muslim school in my constituency,” Madigan says. “Parents are reluctant to register their children. The same is true of schools with a high number of disabilities. We are fighting that ethos.”

The French students know that the Republic of Ireland is a sovereign country, though they haven't quite grasped the North's status within the UK. They are fascinated by the idea that white Christians would fight white Christians, and ask twice about so-called peace walls.

Madigan speaks briefly of the Troubles, of Bloody Sunday, Sunningdale and the Anglo-Irish and Belfast agreements. “Aren’t the peace walls keeping people apart?” a young woman called Miriam asks.

“The peace walls were initially built to protect people, because particularly at night there was violence,” says Ambassador Burgess, who long served as director general of the Anglo-Irish division at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

"The walls cannot remain there indefinitely," Burgess continues. "Walls come down when people feel safe. You don't make peace when you make an agreement. Sometimes it takes a long, long time to reach people's hearts. I do think we are making progress. You must keep at it for 10, 15 years, for a generation. Protecting that is the greatest priority of the Irish Government. "

"You led the campaign for the legalisation of abortion," a young woman addresses Madigan. "Did anyone threaten you, like they threatened Simone Veil?" (French stateswoman Simone Veil was minister of health when she pushed through abortion legislation in 1975.)

“There was a good result in Ireland, with 66 per cent voting to allow women to have a choice,” Madigan replies. “I led the Yes campaign in my party (Fine Gael). It was difficult. I was threatened. It was trying at times, but I would do it again because it has helped so many people.”

An African teenager called Mouna asks if it is easy being a woman in Irish politics. Madigan notes that only 36 of 160 TDs are women. “I am only the 19th female cabinet minister since the foundation of the State, and the first woman lawyer. I feel responsible to be a role model for girls.”

In the afternoon, Madigan joins Elisabeth Moreno, France's minister of state for equality between women and men at a seminar in the Irish Embassy entitled "Role Models for Change".

Moreno was born in Cape Verde, off the western coast of Africa, grew up in an immigrant banlieue and became an executive at Hewlett Packard before joining government. Like Essabaa, whose parents came from Morocco and Tunisia, Moreno says the French public school system enabled her to break the double glass ceiling of gender and diversity.

Moreno organised the recent "Pantheonisation" of the American-born entertainer and Resistance heroine Josephine Baker. Ireland does not have a Pantheon to its great men and women. But if it did, Madigan says, she would propose two names: Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president, and the 18th-century Catholic educator Nano Nagle.