Cablegate: Visit to France's First (and Only) Muslim High

Published: Mon 21 Mar 2005 05:26 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) In an effort to widen Embassy outreach to Muslim
communities throughout France, Poloff and Consul Lille
recently visited the "Lycee Averroes," the first and only
Muslim high school in France, co-located in the grounds of
the Grand Mosque of Lille. We had a friendly, hour-long
meeting with the school's director, Sylvie Taleb, who offered
impressions on the school's progress and challenges since its
founding in 2003.
2. (SBU) The school, now in its second academic year,
numbers 45 students, a jump from its first year enrollment of
just 15. Lycee Averroes operates as a sort of
state-sanctioned private charter school, and faces a
five-year probation period, during which it receives no
government funding. (After the probationary period, if the
school can demonstrate that it meets acceptable academic
standards, it will be eligible, as a private "contract"
school, to receive government funding to subsidize salaries
for teachers.) Taleb reported that a number of the school's
teachers work on a voluntary basis, and the school relies on
charitable donations and tuition charges to stay afloat.
Taleb said she was seeking to move the school to a larger
facility prior to the end of the probationary period; based
on demand, she claimed, the student body could surpass 200
students, but due to space limitations in the mosque
facility, it cannot accommodate more than the current
enrollment. She added that similar, unrelated projects for
establishing Muslim private schools were under discussion in
Marseille, Lyon and Grenoble.
3. (SBU) Taleb stressed from the outset that the school,
which follows the French national curriculum, is open to
students of all religious faiths and backgrounds, though the
current student body is almost entirely Muslim (two students
are non-Muslim) and primarily of North African origin. The
school is co-ed, but she conceded that the main impetus for
the school was to provide education to girls who had been
expelled from French public schools for refusing to remove
their headscarves in school. (All of the students we saw were
female and veiled, as was Taleb.) Taleb reported that the
expulsion of girls from local schools for wearing the
headscarf dated back to the 1990's and that the mosque had
long provided a space for informal schooling for such
students, although in much smaller numbers than today. Taleb
dismissed the assessment, widespread in the French press,
that the GoF implementation of the headscarf ban in schools
had been a success, with relatively few expulsion cases. She
asserted, without providing statistics, that several girls
had been expelled in the Lille area. (Note: The GoF estimates
that 47 girls have been expelled this school year for
refusing to remove the headscarf, a figure which does not
include students who withdrew from school to seek private or
home schooling prior to the academic year. End note).
Asked about the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment locally,
she quipped, "wear a veil around town for a day, and you'll
know what Islamophobia is." At the same time, she conceded
that the neighborhood surrounding the school had been
welcoming of the school's presence, as initial public
concerns about unruly students overtaking the area had been
entirely unfounded.
4. (SBU) Taleb also downplayed the Islamic nature of the
school, asserting that she sought to maintain an open-door
attitude with the GoF and the local community, in order to
dispel any misconceptions that the school is a "madrassa."
She stressed that the school follows the French national
curriculum, in French, and proudly showed poloff and consul a
colorful poster designed by students on baroque art, as an
example of the school's typical academic offerings. Unlike
many French schools, the school offered courses in Arabic (as
well as English), and comparative religion. Taleb stressed
that she sought to teach students about Islam, Christianity
and Judaism, as many of her students were ignorant of the
latter two religions, just as many French Christians knew
little about Islam. Taleb commented that she herself had
been born Catholic and converted to Islam, and that she spent
over 10 years teaching French at a Catholic private school
prior to joining the Lycee Averroes. She commented that she
was strongly against "sectarianism" and that there should be
greater interaction and understanding between France's
religious communities.
5. (SBU) Asked what set the Lycee Averroes apart from other
French schools, Taleb cited not the religious aspect of the
school but the social disadvantages faced by the students.
Her goal was to teach the students to overcome the social
barriers facing them, maintain the highest academic standards
and aim for the upper reaches of French society, to include
the "grandes ecoles," French government careers, and
financial sector. She described many of her students and
their parents as previously unaware of opportunities beyond
the typical career tracks offered by French schools to
students of immigrant origin, which she summed up as either
"work at the Renault factory or tend a vegetable stand." She
added that discrimination against students with
Arabic-sounding names was widespread, and said she knew of
several Arab-origin, post-graduates who were unable to get
responses to job openings despite impressive resumes,
presumably because they "had the wrong name." Taleb
stressed that, in her view, the best response to such
discrimination was for students to prove that they could be
among the best and use knowledge as a weapon. While the GOF
was not helping the school, she conceded, at least it was not
standing in her way. She said that the next year of the
school's operation would be critical as it would mark the
first time the school's students took the national
baccalaureate exams; the pass rate for the school would be
interpreted as a measure of its success. She added that the
fact that the school had taken in a number of students who
were under-performing academically would make matters more
6. (SBU) Poloff and consul closed the discussion by providing
Taleb a copy of a French-language, USG-produced magazine on
Muslims in the U.S., which she received with interest. Taleb
also expressed interest in receiving English-language
materials from APP Lille, on subjects of interest such as the
U.S. civil rights movement. She commented that the school's
students were highly politicized, and in general critical of
U.S. policy as they did not see U.S. actions as matching our
ideals. She reiterated, at the same time, belief in the
importance of dialogue, and said she might be open to hosting
U.S. speakers at the school, subject to the approval of the
school's management.
7. (SBU) Comment: In visiting this school, we were struck by
how U.S. themes of social integration, the immigrant
experience, and the civil rights movement offer common ground
for Embassy dialogue with the French Muslim community. In
many ways, USG interaction and program approaches based on
the more general topic of social equality -- i.e., focusing
on the immigrant background of most French Muslims -- appear
to have greater potential for resonance with French Muslims
than focusing only on religion or U.S. policy in the Middle
East. End comment.
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