Muslim Schoolgirls in Paris Are Fed Up with French Politics

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

In 2012, current French president François Hollande vowed he would make young people’s lives better within five years. Five years later, the results are mixed. Near the end of 2016, the unemployment rate among young people had declined by 1.7 percent, to 23.8 percent. That’s somewhat encouraging but still well above the national average of 9.7 percent. During his time as president, young people in France have protested with the same vigor as they did under right-wing governments—just think about the strikes against new labor laws or recent protests against police brutality.

With this in mind, I wondered how those able to vote for the first time in France’s upcoming presidential election this weekend feel about the choices offered to them. So to find out, I went to a high school in Paris to talk to some 18-year-olds.

The area the school is in, Porte de Vincennes, actually has two schools right next to each other—Lycée Hélène Boucher and trade school Maurice Ravel. Feeling a bit lost among so many kids and trying to guess who was over 18, I randomly approached a group of three girls chatting on a bench. I asked them about the difference between the two schools. “Hélène Boucher over there is more of a white school,” one of the girls told me, “while Ravel is more mixed. We’re from Ravel.” The girls I spoke to are black, and two of them were wearing headscarves. Naturally, their experience as non-white girls in France plays into their perception of the current political climate—so our conversation often turned to that.

Djenaba and Houza are 18 and are almost entering college. They were both torn for a while about their next steps after high school—whether they should study something that would allow them to help people or go after a job that would earn them tons of money. They also had to consider if there would even be any jobs waiting for them when they finished.

Houza eventually landed on social studies as her first choice, with her second choice in human resources. Djenaba chose social studies and a degree in health. The two are now waiting to hear back to see if they’ve been admitted to their first or second choices. The only thing certain about their future is that there are some grueling finals waiting for them at the end of the school year.

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They don’t feel very connected to any presidential campaign in this race. Houza said she only follows the news through Snapchat but doesn’t know much about politics or the candidates. She thinks she might vote for Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon. “He seems nice, but he wants to legalize weed, and that worries me a bit, she said. “People will probably go crazy.”

The third girl in the group is their friend Dalaba, who is already in her first year of studying law at the Sorbonne. She added: “Well, people who smoke just because it’s illegal will probably quit doing it. If you come here in the morning before class, there’s always a big intoxicating cloud.”

At college, Dalaba studied centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s plans to start a committee made up of citizens, to which the president is accountable. She thinks it’s “not a bad idea.” 

The girls are all convinced of one thing: Whatever politicians’ promises are, they never keep them. At home, no one talks about politics. Their parents don’t really follow the campaign and are not convinced a new president will change anything for them. The girls have televisions at home, but they don’t use them (only their old brothers do, to play Xbox, or their younger siblings, to watch cartoons). They all agreed that voting for conservative candidate François Fillon—who was investigated for hiring his wife as a parliamentary assistant and paying her an obscene amount of money for the job—isn’t an option.

“Fillon should be in jail, right?” Houza asked. “I don’t understand what he’s still doing here.”

When I brought up far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, the three girls shrieked, “No way, never!” in unison. That said, Djenaba thinks there’s one positive aspect to Le Pen: “She’s the only one who is straightforward,” she said. “She’s not hiding the fact that she doesn’t like us, like the other candidates. You know she’ll do what she says she’ll do.”

A few weeks after our first chat, I met up with Houza and Djenaba again in a cafe to pick up where we left off. When I asked them what they think is most unfair in French society, they both mentioned racism. Houza’s parents are from Mayotte and the Comoros—small islands off the eastern coast of Africa. Djenaba’s parents are from Senegal. Both girls are Muslim.

“We’re not directly affected by racism personally, but it’s everywhere around us,” said Djenaba. “If a black person is arrested, that person’s sentence is harsher than for a white person who’s committed the same crime.”

“I started wearing the veil outside of school since I was 15,” said Houza. “At first, I was scared that it would be the only thing people would see of me, and my mom was a bit worried, too. But in the end it didn’t change anything for me. But I know girls who have been assaulted for wearing the veil. But who knows—if I had been white and I had seen black or Arabic people do bad things, I might have been a racist, too.”

Houza and Djenaba both agreed that it’s a serious issue that entire groups of people are being judged by the actions of a few. “Like, I would never think all policemen were the same,” said Djenaba.

Both agreed that politicians create problems where there aren’t any. “After hearing so much about Islam all the time, I thought there must be an enormous number of Muslims in the country,” said Houza. “So I was really surprised when I heard on TV that we’re only 7.5 percent of the population.” 

Neither of the two feel that all the debate around religion and immigration fairly represents reality—in the neighborhoods where they live, they see immigration as a positive thing. “There’s a bit of everything where we live—Senegalese, Malian, Arabic, Asian, and they’re all friends,” Djenaba explained. “Our moms chat and exchange recipes.” Both of them love life in their neighborhoods—the parties, the different cultures. “It’s a bit like a big family.”

The two feel they’ve experienced discrimination at school, with teachers being less encouraging to them in trade school than at other educational levels. “I feel like we are labeled. I studied economics originally, but I found it hard, and I was immediately told I had to change to trade school,” said Houza. “I did it, but in the end, it’s a lower level, and I’m not very motivated or challenged.”

Houza and Djenaba’s parents want them to study for as long as they can. “We want to climb the ladder, but it’s always easier for rich people to succeed,” said Houza.

“When I went to an open house at Assas University [a law university in the sixth arrondissement of Paris], I honestly left early because I felt uncomfortable—all the guys my age were wearing a suit,” said Djenaba. She’d never want a job just for the money, even though not everyone in her life agrees. “My mom says that being a nurse isn’t good enough.”

Torn between wanting to help others but also wanting a career where she could go abroad—maybe to the US or in the Comoros—Houza was a bit late with applying to schools. “Around midnight the day before, I realized the deadline was approaching, and I rushed to write my cover letters,” she said, adding that she thinks the same thing will happen with the elections—a lot of pondering and then a last minute decision.

“And if I stress out too much in the polling booth, I might just leave the ballot blank.”

Lead photo: Djenaba (left) and Houza (right), students at Lycée Maurice Ravel in Paris. All photos by the author

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