In France, ‘la mixité’ once meant just boys and girls going to the same school. Now Muslim mothers have adopted the word in their campaign against social apartheid.

In a country that has liberty, equality and fraternity as its national motto, a banner that denounces “social apartheid” should do more than prick the collective conscience – it should sting like a scorpion.

The campaign of a group of Muslim mothers who are demanding an end to the “ghettoisation” that condemns their children to attend schools where every pupil is of immigrant origin, has, indeed, duly stung liberal French consciences.

It is a mantra of French politics that to be integrated in to society the country’s Muslim population – unofficially estimated at between five and seven million people – needs to be doing more, needs to be “more French”.

“That is exactly what we are fighting for,” says Safia, 36, a mother of three who is among the campaign leaders in the southern town of Montpellier. Like the others, she prefers to be identified only by her first name.

“We’d love it if class photographs showed fair-haired or red-headed children side by side with our children.” Montpellier is one of the most attractive cities in France, the third-largest on the Mediterranean coast after Nice and Marseille.

In opinion polls, it has frequently been voted the place people wish they could call home.

In common with all French towns and cities, it has a sizeable minority of families who have roots in the former colonies of North and Sub-Saharan Africa. As with elsewhere in France, the immigrant population in Montpellier is largely congregated in low-cost estates. The Petit Bard estate is home to more than 5,000 people, mostly of Moroccan family backgrounds.

In their bid for school inclusion, a group of Petit Bard women have staged marches, occupied several schools, created a Facebook campaign page and fired off letters to the city hall, the local education authority and one senior government figure they simply call Najat.

France’s education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, is from Morocco, too. One of seven children born in the village of Bni Chiker, in the Rif region of Morocco, she is also a product of an unpromising young life in the banlieues. A builder’s daughter, she grew up in the northern city of Amiens after arriving in France aged five.

There is broad agreement in France that the country needs more success stories like hers and fewer grim accounts of disaffected young Muslims joining terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

The women of Petit Bard want to know how their children can hope to make something of their lives if they are confined as victims of “social apartheid”.

They are looking to Ms Vallud-Belkacem, who has been vocal on many aspects of discrimination in French society, to take a robust position in their corner and help end what amounts to segregated schooling. “No to the ghetto – yes to la mixité” reads a slogan on a banner.

It is that word, mixité, that defines the mothers’ campaign. Once it meant no more than boys and girls being educated together now it has a wider context – diversity of ethnicity in coeducation.

As recently as 20 years ago, Petit Bard’s population was a blend of Maghrebins, native French, pied-noirs (those of French origin from North Africa) and Spanish. Almost all except the Maghrebins – in particular the Moroccans – have gone, says Safia.

Accordingly, it is their children who make up entire classes of schools serving Petit Bard. The schools do their best, she adds, but “there is a complete absence of diversity”.

Marie-Françoise Camps, headmistress at the Genevievé-Bon nursery school, applauds the women’s “candour and determination” to bring diversity.

She says many pupils have poor command of French but, she adds approvingly, some are trilingual – Arabic, Berber and French.

While authorities have been vocal about dismantling barriers between communities Ms Vallaud-Belkacem has not been noticeably forthcoming in supporting the Petit Bard women.

She talks of “la mixité” in other contexts – such as after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris when a few individual Maghrebin pupils refused to observe commemorative silences in schools.

But her ministry could not point The National to a public statement of her view of the Montpellier campaign.

In her blog she deplores local authorities dominated by the centre-right that refuse to offer an alternative to pork in school canteens but makes no mention of the issues fought by Safia and her friends.

A spokeswoman said the educational policy of sectorisation – the equivalent of catchment areas in other countries – made it difficult to move children to schools in other districts.

In 2014 in Montpellier, in line with the sectorisation policy, local authorities said that children at primary school in Petit Bard would all move to Les Cazes secondary school.

Prior to the schools being allocated by catchment area, there had been a more mixed environment. In the mothers’ eyes, the change confirmed the ghetto status.

“We suddenly realised our children would go all the way from nursery school to the end of secondary school without discovering the cultures of others or the art of different communities living together,” said another mother, Fatima.

Renaud Calvat, a councillor with responsibility for education, said that allowing parents to send their children to the secondary establishments schools of their choice would be the beginning of the end of the “republican school system”. Education department officials admit that “in an unmixed district, schools will also be unmixed”, and add that while the mothers had raised important questions, changing the fundamental approach is “not a simple matter”.

One senior official talks of the possible snag of long journeys for children who are sent to schools in other neighbourhoods and insists that the city dealt fairly with the 21,000 pupils attending 122 schools.

Yet the women of Montpellier – who insist, incidentally, their husbands are fully behind them if less vocal in the campaign – are beginning to score points. Changes are being made, albeit slowly. An apparent relaxation of sectorisation rules has meant that a dozen or more children will attend ethnically more mixed schools of their parents’ choice when France’s traditional rentrée scolaire, or start of the new academic year, arrives in early September.

“We have made a difference,” says Safia – who was one of the group of women invited to an international educational conference in Paris.

“Attitudes have changed a little but there’s a long way to go.” Safia’s children are aged between six and 10. “I hope we will achieve much more before they leave school,” she says.

France’s socialist president, François Hollande, entered office in 2012 with a range of promises about an urgent need to end racism and injustice, to make real progress on equality and diversity and ensure that “every child has its full place in society, receives an excellent education and flourishes to his or her potential”.

Asked what she would tell the president if her role in the Montpellier mothers’ campaign caused them to meet, Safia has a simple response: “That he should keep the promises he made.”

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