Teaching in the banlieue: ‘It is very tense. We don’t talk about sensitive topics any more’

As youths in France riot over the killing of a teenager by police, schools in deprived suburbs are part of the problem and a potential solution

France is still reeling from six nights of rioting, sparked by the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk on June 27th. A motorcycle policeman shot Merzouk at close range when the boy refused to stop the car he was driving.

The insurance federation this week estimated the cost of destruction at €650 million. More than 2,500 buildings were damaged, 6,000 cars were torched and 722 policemen were injured.

President Emmanuel Macron is pushing through a draft law to dramatically accelerate the planning and reconstruction process.

Rebuilding is the easy part. It will be much harder to win the loyalty of the youths who engaged in an orgy of burning and looting. Of the 3,600 people detained, 1,149 were minors, some as young as 10 or 11.


The immigrant banlieues or suburbs of French cities have simmered for more than 40 years. No one doubts there will be more riots in the future. The left blame racism and discrimination by police. The right and far right blame what they claim are lax immigration policies.

If there is one thing on which both sides agree, it is that schools are part of the problem and a potential solution.

Macron has promised to identify the underlying causes of the rioting. He could learn a great deal from 32-year-old Ophélie Roque, who has taught children aged 11-17 in the banlieue that rings Paris for six years. Roque has no doubt that some of her students participated in the looting, and is writing a book about her experiences.

In her first year Roque saw a child of 10 or 11 swing his metal scooter around like a medieval flail, in an attempt to injure a classmate.

In another incident, a girl had her index finger severed when bullies slammed the door of a refrigerated room in the school kitchen on her hand. Firemen looked for the severed finger in the hope that doctors could sew it back on. The boys were tossing it between themselves, as a game.

Roque had a male student who hit and pulled the hair of his classmates. Another knocked over chairs several times a day. Such behaviour continues for years, because it is nearly impossible for public schools to expel troublemakers. “It takes only two or three to destroy a class for 30 students,” says Roque. “We need specialised institutions for extreme cases.”

From about the age of 16, students start learning to drive. They often drop out of school and become lookouts or drug dealers who find themselves at war with police. A 2017 study by the government rights defender found that a young African or Arab was 20 times more likely to be stopped by police for an identity check than other French people.

You try to explain that laïcité [France’s policy of state-enforced secularism] means one has the right to show caricatures … The problem is, it is very tense. We don’t talk about sensitive topics any more

Schoolchildren also get involved in trafficking. “I’ve had students boast about being lookouts in the housing projects,” says Roque. Like the 12-year-old who arrived in class with a wad of €10 banknotes.

“This is more than you’ll earn this month!” the child taunted her.

“You’re probably right, but I won’t end up in prison,” Roque replied.

The child threw the banknotes into the air and other children scrambled to grab them.

Roque estimates that white children of French descent comprise at most 10 per cent of students in the banlieue. The identity papers of students of immigrant origin say they are French, “but they think of themselves as the children of colonised peoples”, she says. “I hear kids say, ‘We are going to colonise France’ and ‘We’ll win numerically. We are a wave’. They’ve adopted the rhetoric of the far right.”

When the history and geography teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by a Chechen immigrant in October 2020, Roque and her colleagues asked students to fill out a questionnaire.

“A lot of students said it was sad, but that [Paty] had asked for it,” says Roque, shuddering. “You try to explain that laïcité [France’s policy of state-enforced secularism] means one has the right to show caricatures ... The problem is, it is very tense. We don’t talk about sensitive topics any more.”

Who was Nahel Merzouk and why did his killing spark riots across France?

Listen | 17:52
The killing by a police officer of a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent plunged France into a week of chaos. Rioting, looting and destruction of property spread from the Parisian suburb of Nanterre across France and even to remote Reunion Island. The violence has subsided, leaving France with a huge task to reckon with the underlying tension and dissatisfaction that fuelled it. Lara Marlowe reports from Paris.

A Muslim colleague of Roque mentioned in conversation with students that not all Arabs are Muslims. “She got death threats. One parent told her, ‘We’ll do to you what happened to Samuel Paty’. The DGSE [intelligence agency] tried to calm things down. She was very upset and had to stop teaching for two months.”

Students find it difficult to reconcile Islam as taught at home with French secularism. A boy objected to a kiss in a literary text because it was Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from sexual relations during daylight hours. Another boy covered illustrations in a textbook with erasers and pencil-sharpeners because, he said, images of humans are forbidden in Islam. “You never know if they are doing it to provoke you, or out of sincere belief. Perhaps both,” says Roque.

President Macron became more hardline as the riots continued. On a visit to a police station on July 3rd he said: “We must be able to punish the families financially from the first infraction.”

The idea of fining parents is popular on the French right, but it is illusory, says Roque. “These are the poorest people in France, and they are insolvent. What is the point of cutting off their welfare payments? I’ve had students who sold drugs to feed their families. I gave a kid a hard time for sleeping in class. It turned out he works at Pizza Hut at night because his mother is a drug addict and can’t take care of his brothers and sisters.”

When a French boy of African origin fainted repeatedly in class, teachers realised that he and his sister were malnourished. Their mother, a cleaning lady, was probably entitled to welfare but had not applied. “Some of them can’t cope with paperwork,” says Roque. The school provided canteen meals for the boy and his sister.

Parents are often little more than children themselves. A father arrived for a disciplinary meeting with his 14-year-old son wearing a La Haine T-shirt with a gun on it. (La Haine – hatred – is Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film about the war between police and immigrant youths in the banlieue.) “I thought he was the older brother,” says Roque. “I said ‘Where are your mom and dad?’ The father was 28.”

On school trips to Paris, Roque’s students are astonished by the beauty and cleanliness of the city. “Perhaps that is the root of the problem. It is inaccessible to them. They feel they can never belong to that world. It creates huge frustration.”

Some students spend most of their day scrolling through social media profiles of rich people in the US and United Arab Emirates, says Roque. “Phones are banned in class, but they do it during recess and on the school bus. How can you not be frustrated when you spend all day looking at rich people on beaches? Mindless consumerism is the only model of society for a lot of them. When you ask them what they want to be, they say ‘Influencer. I want the brands to pay me’.”

A female student told Roque at the end of this school year that she wants to be in her class again next year. “But you always argue with me!” Roque replied. “It’s because you talk to me,” the girl answered.

“What do you mean, ma puce [my flea, a term of endearment]?” Roque asked.

“At home, no one talks to me,” the girl complained.

“Her parents and siblings are glued to their phones. When she wants to tell them about her day, no one listens ... School provides their only real communication with adults.”

At the end of this school year, shortly before the riots, a class of 13-year-olds presented her with a travel bag filled with pens, markers and post-its

A boy student gave Roque an expensive tablet, as a gift. She realised it was stolen and persuaded him to tell her where it came from, so she could take it back. “He was afraid I would forget him,” she says.

Sometimes students put little cakes from the supermarket on Roque’s desk with a note. Moving from classroom to classroom through the day, she often loses her things. At the end of this school year, shortly before the riots, a class of 13-year-olds presented her with a travel bag filled with pens, markers and post-its. They had all pitched in to buy it, as a gesture of affection.

A teacher in the banlieue must also be a disciplinarian, social worker and nurse, says Roque. She calls the state “a crushing administrative machine whose decisions fly in the face of common sense”. Inadequate provision is made for children with special needs. An autistic student rolls himself into a ball and never speaks. A girl having a psychotic episode wanders the halls of the school conversing in Arabic with her demons.

Yet despite the dangers, frustration and low pay, Roque will continue. “I may complain, but it’s a job I love, which has meaning. I’d miss it if I did something else.”