Not sure what to think about secular values in France? How about admiration? Instead of suggesting that France should be more like other countries where religion has been allowed to creep into the public sphere (or is welcomed with open arms into the public sphere as in the USA), I suggest we celebrate the freedom allowed by la laïcité, especially in schools.
I’ve been following with interest the reporting on France by the New York Times since the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It has been very careful. An article on 1/19/15 entitled “An Inclusive French Republic” concluded that “France’s minister of education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who is French-Moroccan, is to announce new measures on Monday to better explain French ‘republican values’ in the schools. For the lessons to work, the Hollande government must find ways to make those values a reality for the many French youths who feel marginalized from French society.” The profile of Vallaud-Belkacem in the 2/21/15 “Saturday Profile” of the New York Times stresses her outsider status, as one of seven children of a poor immigrant family where traditional gender roles were the norm, to her rise through the ranks of the Socialist Party and her current status as Minister of Education. It gives ample coverage of the attacks she has been subjected to in the conservative media and among other Muslims. What is missing is support for her plans.
Instead of scrutinizing Vallaud-Balkacem for potential weaknesses, we should support her efforts to continue the French republican heritage into the 21st century. She is a transitional figure, building on the strength of her silent mother—and legions of other Muslim women—who seek a better life for themselves and their children through public education. The article notes that despite the rigid patriarchy of their home, “her mother nevertheless pushed the seven children to study and encouraged the girls to be financially independent.” In the photo, we see that Vallaud-Belkacem wears no headscarf, and in the few remarks that quote her directly, she states a powerful and admirable goal, of making “a lifetime commitment against social injustices, against inequalities.” The ultimate solution to the French identity, now as in 1905, lies in education. Carefully avoiding criticism of the way she herself was raised, she nevertheless notes, “Endless political debates have stigmatized Muslim families. School needs to teach people that everyone is part of one community and that we are all free and equal.”
Vallaud-Belkacem is a beacon of hope. In honor of her strong spirit, we should continue the media attention in support of republican values. We should cheer on her efforts to combat the creeping tentacles of private interests (religious or otherwise) from encroaching into the sphere of public education. As citizens of the premier democracy of the world, we Americans should acclaim the power of public education to change people’s lives for the better.