Equality, fraternity? France’s immigrant youth not buying it

By Clare Byrne ,AFP

PARIS — Two weeks after the jihadist attacks that rocked France, the banner extolling free speech on the gates of Honore de Balzac high school in northern Paris is looking a little worse for wear. The fraying sign declares the school ��is Charlie�� �X echoing the global slogan of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine targeted by the extremists in the first of three deadly attacks. Situated just within the boundary lines of Paris proper, separated from the high-rise suburbs by a ring road, Honore de Balzac’s student body is an ethnic, cultural and social hodgepodge. Many of the students are Muslim. All fell silent at noon on Jan. 8 to honor the 12 people shot dead a day earlier by Islamist gunmen at Charlie Hebdo. ��What happened was very bad,�� said Ahmed, a lanky final-year student who stood chatting with two friends outside the sprawling school complex. But while abhorring the killings, he made clear he had no truck with the murdered cartoonists who mocked Islam and other religions on a weekly basis.

��There are limits to free speech. There are things like religion you can’t touch. It’s a question of respect,�� said the 17-year-old youth who was born in France to Malian parents. Fatima and Kevin, both also 17-year-old second-generation immigrants, of North African and Haitian stock respectively, nod vigorously in agreement. Not all those who felt stigmatized by Charlie Hebdo’s drawings were left unmoved by the journalists’ tragic end, however. The image of a fractured country being brought together by three days of bloodshed was muddied by around 200 incidents of dissent at schools, with some students boycotting the January 8 minute of silence or even giving the killings the thumbs-up. Prune Hebert, a teacher of French and history at a technical high school in the 18th district of Paris, was among those who found herself trying to coax students into paying tribute to the cartoonists killed for their provocative drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.

‘They had it coming’ ��Why should we have to do it? You can’t force me. They had it coming,�� was the reaction of some students in one predominantly immigrant class. One student mocked the murders. ��It’s me who did the Charlie Hebdo attacks,�� he joked. Hebert, who believes the rebellious elements were spurred by a knee-jerk desire to ��shock and provoke�� as much as by conviction, moved quickly to try find common ground. You can condemn something �X in this instance the cartoons �X without resorting to violence, she reminded them.

��In France everyone can believe what they like, including whether God exists or not. It’s freedom of expression that protects our respective beliefs.��