On the fringes, without benefits

Many immigrant children in the socially and economically deprived Paris suburbs are failing in school. Is the education system failing them? Chloe Combi visits the French capital to investigate - and asks whether it is any better in the UK

Chloe Combi

It's offensive, man. Banlieue is like your word `nigger'. You don't use it any more to talk about an area. You use it if you want to offend someone. Especially about their race or class."

We are told this, somewhat angrily and drunkenly, by an ex-pupil of Jean Moreau's when we are walking around the neighbourhood where he teaches. Moreau advises him to go and sober up before he gets himself into his "usual trouble".

As we drive away, I ask my Parisian guide and interpreter for the next 48 hours: "Do you think that's true? About the word banlieue being offensive?"

Moreau exhales a plume of smoke, his eyes watering. He is the first person I've met for years who chain-smokes, although God knows how he manages in term time, as he is a teacher in one of the poorest areas in the south of Paris.

His eyes don't leave the road. "Let's go to some," he says. "You can make up your own mind."

I am in Paris to discover more about the education system - specifically, how immigrant children are faring in it. It's a cultural exchange trip: Moreau wants to know about the quality of British education for our immigrant children and is coming to London in September.

As Moreau rightly points out, my article would lack integrity if I didn't see the backdrop to these kids' lives, so we are driving north to Bondy and Clichy-sous-Bois, and will later visit Bagneux and Malakoff in the south of the city.

Bondy is a commune in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris and is similar to rougher parts of North London. It's not the sort of place you dream of living, with its ugly high-rises and sad-looking houses, but it certainly doesn't make you check immediately that the car door is locked.

Moreau describes the area as "low": "low-income, low-level housing, low- level crime". We are regarded with suspicion and, although Paris in August is always quiet, there is a sense of abandonment here that I find sad.

We travel east to Clichy-sous-Bois - an unexpectedly rugged drive. The poor infrastructure and transport links to this suburb further (and, Moreau asserts, intentionally) isolate it from the rest of Paris. "Clichy- sous-Bois is definitely a place considered a problem that any government would like to forget or hide. Particularly since (the riots of) 2005. You can't even get a train out here," he tells me.

On entering it, I can't help but agree with Moreau. "Christ," I mutter to myself.

Moreau laughs. "I think Christ himself might have thought twice about coming here."

I concede his point, while also thinking that if any place ever needed a saviour, spiritual or otherwise, this is it. Clichy-sous-Bois looks - and I mean this with due respect to the people who live there - as if it were designed to kill the spirit of its inhabitants. It is not just depressing, it's saddening.

"Serge Gainsbourg never wrote any songs about this fucking place, that's for sure," Moreau says, lighting yet another cigarette. "I'm white and affluent, and this place makes me so angry. God knows what it does to the people who live here."

Immigration is so big and messy in France that even the definitions used to describe immigrants are confusing. You have the primo-arrivants (just arrived), the immigrs de deuxime gnrations (second-generation immigrants, although technically this term is incorrect, as the next generation have been born in France and thus are no longer immigrants). Then there are the asylum seekers, hoping for French mercy and a place to stay. The largest immigrant populations are the Algerians, Moroccans, Portuguese and sub-Saharan Africans; the last is also the fastest-growing of these groups over the past decade.

If you are of immigrant parentage and are born in France, you get automatic citizenship at age 18 (unless you choose to waive it - few do). If you were not born in France, citizenship is not guaranteed. The acquisition of French nationality is above 50 per cent for Italian, Polish and Spanish immigrants: these tend to be the oldest such groups in France, going back to the Napoleonic era, and generally do not migrate out of economic necessity. However, the rate drops steeply for immigrants of non- white, non-European descent: among those from China, for example, the figure is 18 per cent, and for Malians it is 21 per cent.

Understanding the problem

So what faces the newly arrived, the second-generations and the asylum seekers in the school system?

"It's shit," claims Bassam, a young man from Algeria who says he is "about 16". "You go to the shit schools with the shit teachers in the shittiest suburbs and everyone thinks you're stupid. How can you be smart if you don't speak the language?

"I arrived here when I was 5 and couldn't speak a word of French. I was put in the (remedial) group, and kept back three times before leaving for good when I was 13."

Bassam considers language and geography in France and the UK to be the biggest obstacles to the education of immigrant children.

Difficulties with the host country's language are often equated with intellectual shortcomings, and so immigrant children may be written off academically at an early age: this is a difficult cycle to break. Of course, it isn't always the school's fault: teachers are often given little or no training in dealing with students who don't speak the language.

However, there is a strong sense that parents in immigrant communities feel as though the French education system is not interested in meeting their children's needs. This is exacerbated by the fact that young people often have to act as linguistic intermediaries between their parents and schools and other institutions, such as the police, courts or social services.

"The parents," Moreau says, "are often much more aspirational for their kids than the media and society give them credit for. But those aspirations are impossible if they can't communicate with them. They often have no idea how their child is faring."

As in Britain's state system, French school places are assigned on a geographical basis and, also similarly, ways to circumvent the system are more readily available to the mobile and the wealthy. Unsurprisingly, the better schools with better teachers are found in more affluent areas.

Poorer suburban areas have much less successful schools and experience difficulty in attracting teachers such as Moreau. Before Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007, the government was attempting to address this by creating ZEPs (zones of priority education) and offering incentives to teachers to work in them. However, Sarkozy didn't like the scheme and abolished it.

"But surely," I ask later, "things are better for second-generation kids who were born here? They have the advantage of the language, a metaphorical sense of French identity and, when they reach 18, legal reinforcement of that identity?"

"They have a slight edge on the newly arrived and asylum seekers, yes," says Anne-Marie du Pont, another teacher. "But there is deep cultural and institutional racism in France that is difficult to uproot."

Racism is a big charge to make and some French citizens I speak to strongly deny such a thing, but the statistics reveal clear disadvantages experienced by immigrants.

Unemployment in the banlieues is on average 20 per cent - and even higher among Moroccans and Turks - compared with a national average of 10.4 per cent. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), a total of 48.7 per cent of immigrant families' fathers have no academic qualifications at all, with the numbers being as high as 76.1 per cent for Turks, 64.9 per cent for Moroccans and 52.7 per cent for Algerians. For native French fathers, this figure is 26.6 per cent.

The mothers frequently fare worse, although more often this is because of certain cultural norms such as not encouraging or allowing girls and women to be educated.

Pleasingly, the discrepancy between immigrants and nationals going on to study for the Baccalaurat is narrower, albeit not narrow enough - 33 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively. However, the largest percentage of the former are European immigrants, according to Unicef.

Focused rage

Children, particularly in their pre-teen years, see their parents as the primary model for their own lives.

The poverty, alienation and inequality inculcates a sense of injustice and anger that is plain to see among the young immigrant population. Interestingly, their rage has a much clearer political shape than is apparent, say, among young people in London, who mutter about things being "unfair" but rarely have much political nous.

Gabir, a sharply intelligent 19-year-old Algerian, tells me furiously about "the lies they are taught in history in school".

He explains: "There is no inclusion of France's shameful past, right up to this very day. About how they tore families apart, withheld identities and used immigrants as slaves. I asked about the massacres of 1961 and was hit over the head by my teacher and then beaten up later in the playground by the white kids."

There is no way to prove the veracity of Gabir's stories about his brutal treatment at school, but France's wariness about the teaching of its own past is certainly true.

As recently as February 2005, the right-wing UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party introduced a law decreeing that teaching had to emphasise the positive aspects of colonialism. The law - subsequently repealed - created an uproar, with some academics arguing it was tantamount to "historical revisionism" and would impugn both educational freedom and truth.

We talk to DJ (he won't say what this stands for), a 14-year-old who came here as an asylum seeker without his parents (he won't say where from): he clearly doesn't like or trust adults. He complains to Moreau in broken French of being "beaten up by the police" and shows us some awful scars.

Indeed, a report for Unicef in 2009, The Children of Immigrants in France: the emergence of a second generation, describes how "minors without parents are treated as undocumented aliens", often have their underage status questioned, are regularly the victims of police violence and are at risk of deportation.

DJ's paranoid demeanour suggests he might well not have legitimate papers but I don't want to frighten him by asking more. I ask him what he'd like to do with his life. He smiles and says in French: "Get rich and fuck the police up."

The many negative tales I hear from the street about the police do not leave me, a stranger and foreigner, with the greatest impression of them. But Moreau reminds me that "you can't take all the stories of police brutality from every source as absolute truth". He points out that although examples of terrible police practice exist, in his time as a teacher he has also met some very kind, sympathetic and diligent police officers.

Who is to blame?

So, to address the elephant in the room: are some of the limitations - educational, economic and societal - experienced by immigrants, to some degree self-imposed?

Certainly, the outlawing by the government of the burka and all face- covering headgear in 2004 and the subsequent fallout suggests serious conflict between France's cultural expectations and the traditional practices and beliefs of some of its immigrant peoples.

Farzana, 15, tells me in a whisper that she has sidestepped the educational obstacles facing immigrant children and has been told by her school "that if she remains on track, she can have her pick of any university she wants".

Moreau knows Farzana well, as his girlfriend (a Muslim) taught her how to speak English when she arrived, aged 6, and was living down the road from them.

She tells me of her frustration at her parents' unwillingness to allow her to flourish academically and their desire to keep her shackled to her traditional role. "My brother is the worst. He wants to be French and drink and have sex like French guys. He tells me I have to be a good Muslim girl."

I ask Moreau's girlfriend, Faza (who doesn't wear any kind of head covering and is dressed in jeans and a Jane's Addiction T-shirt), if she thinks the no-head-covering rule in schools is anti-Muslim. "No," she says. "It's pro-girl. Can you imagine learning easily with a curtain between you and the world?"

I ask Moreau if he thinks things are going to get better or worse for the education and lives of children in France, and particularly the immigrant children. He laughs and lights a cigarette: "I want to ask you the same question. Is life getting better for your kids?"

And the question does make me think. Because, for all France's less-than- exemplary history regarding its treatment of the immigration population, the subsequent segregation, the education inequalities, the history of rioting and the many reports of institutional racism, can we in the UK really say, "Oh, it's those crazy, racist Frenchies"?

We have a rapidly widening gap in quality of education according to social area. In London, wealthy Kensington and Chelsea is the best-performing local authority while disadvantaged Tottenham is one of the worst.

Leading universities still disproportionately favour privately educated children. In 2010, the Labour MP David Lammy showed from the Freedom of Information Act that Oxford draws 89 per cent of its intake from the white middle and upper classes, while 87.6 per cent of Cambridge students are from the top three socio-economic groups. And job prospects for everyone seem to be worsening daily.

Participation in the London riots in 2011 was opportunistic for many but others claimed it was a protest against social and economic injustice.

Some communities in London, such as the Indian one of Southall, choose to segregate themselves ethnically. And in many such communities, there is a sense of anger, of inequality, of disenfranchisement.

My visit to the suburbs of Paris did not leave me smug or superior. It left me feeling worried for both countries on either side of la Manche.

Chloe Combi is a former teacher who writes about education.

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Chloe Combi

Auther, former teacher, former TES columnist 

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