At the Averroès high school in Lille, staff and pupils are worried about their future after French authorities announced they would end state subsidies over management problems and teaching they judged to be at odds with France’s secular values.
“I was marking geography homework and asking myself: ‘Why am I here? What am I doing? What’s the point?’ I’ve just heard I’m a Salafi, a convert – me, over here marking geography papers. And I said to myself, well, so that’s what they’re accusing me of…”
Vincent Pieterarens has been teaching history and geography at the Lycée Averroès for 15 years, exactly as long as the high school has been receiving funding from the French state.
Averroès first opened in 2003 as a private Muslim institution, originally housed within a mosque. The first establishment of its kind in mainland France, it was set up as the government cracked down on so-called “ostentatious” religious symbols in state schools and a series of expulsions made headlines – including the case of 17 Muslim girls excluded from a Lille lycée for wearing headscarves to class.
The northern city has a large Muslim population and Averroès aimed to offer students – both girls and boys – a place where they could observe their religion openly while still following the national curriculum.
From a dozen pupils it grew to several hundred, winning praise for its small class sizes, committed teachers and impressive results.
By 2008 it had entered into contract with the French state, which subsidises private schools that agree to follow national education guidelines, submit to more extensive inspections and accept students – and teachers – of all faiths.
It was around then that Pieterarens joined the lycée.
“Not only am I an atheist, originally I’m even kind of a die-hard secularist,” he told RFI’s Valentin Hugues. “When I saw the school being set up, I said: ‘What the heck is this?’
“Then when I started working here, I soon settled in. It’s a great pleasure – the pleasure of debate, of dialogue.” ‘French values’
But now Averroès, regularly ranks towards the top of regional and national league tables, faces the loss of its public funding, worth around €300,000 to €500,000 each year.
In a decision made public on Monday, regional authorities have ended their contract with the high school, citing irregularities in its management and concerns that elements of its teaching did not respect French values.
According to Le Parisien newspaper, in a letter addressed to the school the local prefecture outlined “serious shortcomings” including a lack of resources on gender equality and LGBTQ+ issues, and over-representation of religious Islamic works.
It also singled out a course on Muslim ethics that it said contained aspects “contrary to the values of the French Republic”.
The letter – signed by the prefect of the Nord department, Georges-François Leclerc – criticised the school’s administrators for lack of transparency and financial dysfunction, Le Parisien reported.
The censure is based on the findings of a local committee, not national school inspectors, who in their 2020 report on Averroès said they saw nothing to suggest its teaching failed to respect French values.
“The school has been around for 20 years, so obviously over the years things get better, more professional,” headteacher Eric Dufour told RFI.
“We are now fully committed to meeting all requirements.” Witch hunt?
Averroès plans to challenge the prefecture’s decision in court.
The school has faced wrangling over its funding before. Notably the conservative council of Lille’s Hauts-de-France region has attempted to refuse to pay out its subsidies for each of the past three academic years, citing a grant the school received in 2014 from a non-governmental organisation in Qatar.
The Lille administrative court has repeatedly ordered the regional council to pay up, most recently in early November.
The high school says that it is subjected to close scrutiny, including frequent inspections.
“After an inspection there are always things to rectify,” said Dufour, who told RFI he had personally removed an Islamic text from a class reading list that he judged not to fit with the school’s ethos.
But some in the school community say the authorities’ attention goes beyond oversight, claiming the establishment is the target of a witch hunt.
Outcry after French police question schools about pupils absent on Muslim holiday
Studying under a weight
Averroès has the right to continue operating privately, but without public funding it may be forced to hike fees for its pupils – who teacher Pieterarens describes as “extraordinary”.
Among them are Oumaïma and Noha, two students working towards their baccalauréat. The high school’s pass rate for the leaving exam hovers around 98 percent.
“Take the example that our teacher here is atheist and we’re Muslim,” said Noha, referring to Pieterarens. “That shows that differences, whether you’re white or non-white, religious or not, they don’t change anything.
“We’re just here to work and get our bac. That’s really the goal.”
But however much they knuckle down, the now national attention their high school is getting is impossible to ignore.
“We feel there’s something weighing on us,” Oumaïma said. “Everything being said outside school, we feel it.”
She told RFI she fears the consequences will last beyond graduation. “If we go for an interview for instance and we say we went to the Lycée Averroès, we’ll still keep that label afterwards. That’s what’s so complicated too.”
By Jessica Phelan with RFI