A school in Paris that allowed students of all faiths the liberty to wear religious symbols – headscarves for Muslims, kippahs for Jews and crucifixes for Christians – was raided by French police in the country's latest clampdown on human rights. More than three dozen police officers descended on the small private school, blocking the 92 students inside their classrooms, photographing everything, even the inside of the refrigerator, and grilling the school director in her office.
"It was like they were moving in on a drug deal," said Hanane Loukili, the director and co-founder of the MHS middle and high school, recalling the Nov. 17 scene. Loukili didn’t know it then, but a team from the Cell to Fight Radical Islam and Community Withdrawal (CLIR) had arrived for inspection.
The dragnet sweeps schools, shops, clubs or mosques to rout out "radicalization." Within a week, a shaken Loukili informed students that their school was shutting down. Loukili insists she is no radical, but such operations illustrate the extent of French efforts to fight "Islamist separatism" as lawmakers prepare to vote Tuesday on a bill aimed at snuffing it out. The proposed legislation is intended to re-anchor secularism in a changing France, where Muslims are increasingly visible and Islam – the nation’s No. 2 religion – is gaining a stronger voice. The legislation, expected to pass the first critical vote, will also expand and facilitate the crackdown.
The MHS school is secular and co-educational but allowed female Muslim students to wear headscarves in class and to pray during breaks. Unlike private Muslim schools in France, where headscarves are allowed, MHS did not offer religion or theology courses. Loukili and others at the school claim it was a perfect target in what some say is an uncomfortable climate for France's Muslims.
Along with the bill, contested by some Muslims, politicians and others, such strong-arm inspections risk accentuating the climate of suspicion many Muslims feel in a country where the vast majority of Muslims don't hold extremist views. Loukili, herself a Muslim, denied any links to radicalism among the staff at the school, which opened in 2015, in an interview with The Associated Press (AP).
The decision came after President Emmanuel Macron's October speech about tackling what he called "Islamist separatism" in which he promised greater supervision of schools. According to Macron, a political-religious project deviating from the republic's values was materializing in France through indoctrination and this was reflected in the "removal of children from public schools, community sporting and cultural activities under the pretext of religious teachings."
"It is completely absurd and outright discriminatory to say we are separatists because we allow students to display religious signs," Loukili told Anadolu Agency (AA) earlier.
The school has decided to appeal and challenge the claims in a tribunal. It was scrutinized three times, starting in January, for "routine inspections" related to safety standards of its building and administrative workings. Following each visit, authorities submitted investigative reports to a criminal court in Paris. They noted the presence of foreign teachers allegedly teaching without authorization.
Loukili refuted the authorities' claims, saying teachers of Algerian and Tunisian origin had worked in the school for over three years and their information was declared to the Rectorate of Paris, in charge of the Academy of Paris, under which the school functions.
What shocked her, however, was a joint press release issued by the Justice Ministry and Paris police on Dec. 9, claiming that the school was being closed based on the CLIR of Paris and controls were imposed on the school "with the aim of protecting children and young people."
The note added that authorities had initiated action against Loukili for running a private school despite administrative opposition and criminal proceedings against two foreign national teachers suspected of being "leaders."
"It then became clear to me that our school was being targeted for (suspicion of) separatism and not over safety reasons or administrative technicalities. It's because we allowed students with headscarves and religious symbols," she said.
Loukili added that in the last five years, the school has proudly followed secular credentials, following a government-approved curriculum. It did not teach any religious studies but its decision to permit teaching staff and students to wear religious symbols was wrongly misconstrued by some to deem it as a "Muslim school," she added.
A majority of the school's students are Muslims, with at least 40% of girls donning headscarves. She said the decision to not discriminate against students publicly practicing their faith was taken because no school in the capital region of Paris admitted these students.
"Public display of religious symbols is a sensitive topic in France," she added. "There is a lot of discrimination and harassment against students who choose to exhibit it. As a result, many choose homeschooling or drop out of public schools. We wanted to help such students, support them and push them in their development,'' she said.
Dragnet raids like those unleashed against Loukili's school have become the underside of the presidential priority, unearthing soft spots on a local level to nip radicalization in the bud. They now reach across the country, with police accompanied by educators or other specialists depending on the target. In December alone, teams carried out 476 raids and closed 36 establishments of various types, according to Interior Ministry figures.
Since November 2019, when the program marked its first year, 3,881 establishments have been inspected and 126 closed, mostly small businesses but also two schools, ministry figures show. One was an underground school with no windows or educational program, along with sports clubs where preaching and obligatory prayer are behind-the-scenes activities. Five were closed.
The proposed law and the Cell to Fight Radical Islam program, led by prefects in each region, are just part of a many-layered operation to rout out what authorities call "enemies of the Republic.”
Mayors of towns considered "most impacted" by the extremist threat have been asked to sign a charter agreeing to cooperate in the hunt for radicals, like flagging potential suspects, the AP has learned.
The Cell to Fight Radical Islam would also get a boost from the planned law, which would provide new legal tools to shut down facilities.
"Today, we’re obliged to use administrative motives to close establishments that don’t respect the law," said an official close to Citizenship Minister Marlene Schiappa, who oversees the Cell to Fight Radical Islam program and is also a sponsor of the proposed law, along with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.
The official, not authorized to speak publicly, could not address the case of the MHS school. Police also would not comment. The school's problems began more than a year ago with safety concerns linked mainly to the large building where it was housed. Loukili, its director and a math teacher at the school, was ordered to close the school, to stop teaching and to not run any future educational establishment.
She returns to court on March 17. "I think they (accuse) us of separatism because they needed to make an example," Loukili said, noting the school’s Paris location, its fragile finances and the leeway given to girls to wear headscarves.
A mother who had to scramble to find new schools for her children after the school closed said her son is fine but her 15-year-old daughter, who insists on wearing a headscarf, had to switch to a Muslim school where head coverings are allowed but where boys and girls are separated inside classrooms and at lunch. Her daughter, unhappy in the strict climate, "comes home with her stomach in knots," said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Rafika, to protect her daughter.
The MHS school "is a school like me, what I call the France of today," said Rafika, a working mother who wears a headscarf. "It’s a real melting pot."
Jean-Riad Kechaou, a history teacher in the working-class Paris suburb of Chelles, sees anger in his Muslim adolescent students. "It comes from this permanent stigmatization of their religion," he said. "In the head of an adolescent of 12, 13, 14, 15 years old, everything gets mixed up and what comes out is his religion has been completely dirtied and fingers are pointed at him."