The first woman to hold the position of Minister for Education in France, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is also a Moroccan-born Muslim, or, as the French would say, an “issu de l’immigration” (child of immigration) rather than a “Français de souche” (French by descent/origin). To say that Belkacem has been a controversial figure since her appointment in 2014 would be quite an understatement.
Most recently, she has come under scrutiny for suggesting that the obligatory school-going age range should be increased to 3 through 18 from 6 through 16. Belkacem’s intention to increase the range of obligatory school-going age is part of her solution for high numbers of school-drop-outs in France.
Belkacem also intends to introduce Arabic in primary schools. Le Figaro, France’s right-leaning newspaper, considers this a move toward “ghettoization,” allowing migrant communities to become continuously insular and restrict their assimilation, claiming that ‘French (as a language) builds the nation.’ Additionally, RT News also discusses the conservative French fear of teaching Arabic, which would produce a ‘Trojan horse’ effect resulting in ‘Islamic indoctrination.’ Simultaneously, RT News emphasizes that “France is home to the largest Muslim community in Europe.” Figures estimate that between 6 and 10% of the French population is Muslim, the majority of this Islamic population coming from North African Arabic-speaking nations.
Considering Belkacem’s two moves side-by-side makes sense; lots of students are falling through the school system and never obtain their diploma. Many of these students, I imagine, are children of migrants, or those who migrated to France in their youth. Adding the option of maintaining a mother-tongue from a young age can help assure young students who are not comfortable in French of their value and intellect despite their struggles in other classes.
Contrary to Le Figaro, I believe that these intended policies do not go far enough. Giving students the option of learning Arabic at a young age does nothing for the fact that many of these students might still be struggling in other courses where they are required to learn in French (e.g. history, maths, science), and may still result in dropping out.
A bilingual education1, however, can ensure that students for whom French is a second language do not fall behind, because they are able to learn material in their mother-tongue, while simultaneously learning French with the hope to successfully integrate in French society.
The fear of cultural symbols and language in the Global North appears to be widespread, with charged rhetoric in the US against the use of Arabic in public spaces (such as this student, who was kicked off a flight after passengers felt threatened because of his use of Arabic). It is interesting to me that language (particularly Arabic) has been viewed as a threat in recent years, because of the use of language as an actual threatening force in the colonial era. Large swathes of Africa (and Asia, and the Americas, and Australia) were colonized by Europeans using their languages and their religions as a ‘civilizing force.’ It’s quite ironic that people who historically used language as a threatening force are afraid that other communities would do the same. Perhaps it’s their own history staring back at them.
1In this post, by ‘bilingual education’ I refer to dual language programs (e.g. where students learn content in two difference languages; maths, history, and science in English, but geography, art, and drama in French).
20 Minutes. (2016, September 21). Décrochage scolaire: Najat Vallaud-Belkacem plaide pour une scolarité obligatoire de 3 à 18. 20 Minutes. Retrieved from http://www.20minutes.fr/societe/1928503-20160921-decrochage-scolaire-najat-vallaud-belkacem-plaide-scolarite-obligatoire-3-18-ans
Boudjahlat, F. (2016, June 16). Enseignement de l’arabe au CP : la langue française fait la Nation et permet l’émancipation. Le Figaro. Retrieved from http://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/politique/2016/06/16/31001-20160616ARTFIG00192-enseignement-de-l-arabe-au-cp-la-langue-francaise-fait-la-nation-et-permet-l-emancipation.php
El Kaddouri, F. (2016, April 16). Meet Najat Belkacem, France’s First Female Minister of Education. Mvslim. Retrieved from http://mvslim.com/najat-belkacem-the-first-female-minister-of-education-and-also-the-new-face-of-france-2/
Franceinfo. (2016, September 21). Najat Vallaud-Belkacem veut rendre la scolarité obligatoire jusqu’à 18 ans. Franceinfo. Retrieved from http://www.francetvinfo.fr/societe/education/najat-vallaud-belkacem-veut-rendre-la-scolarite-obligatoire-jusqu-a-18-ans_1835055.html
Hassan, C. (2016, April 18). Arabic-speaking student kicked off Southwest flight. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/17/us/southwest-muslim-passenger-removed/
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem official website. Retrieved from http://www.najat-vallaud-belkacem.com/mon-parcours/
RT News. (2016, June 3). Outrage as French govt reveals plan to teach Arabic in primary schools. RT News. Retrieved from https://www.rt.com/news/345255-france-arabic-school-children/