Yosra is a 17-year-old who should have the world at her fingertips. Driven and academically gifted, this year she achieved her lifelong dream of graduating high school with the highest honours and being admitted to one of France’s most prestigious universities. But even after reaching her goal, she feels alienated.
She grew up about 30 minutes outside of Paris in Stains, a banlieue, shorthand for an impoverished suburb. These banlieues are outside the remnants of the former ancient wall that up until the 20th century encircled the French capital. Since 1973, the wall has been replaced by a boulevard périphérique, a highway strip that circles the metropolis, dividing the city into two camps: “Paris intra-muros” – inside the walls – and the rest.
Yosra’s family is Muslim and came to France from the former French colony of Tunisia in 1998. “I remember my dad told me it was the year when we won the World Cup,” she says. Her father is a bus driver at an airport, where he transports passengers between terminals. Her mother runs a daycare facility in their home in the banlieues.
France has been upturned like almost every other country in the world by the pandemic, but it is also contending with a reckoning between its concept of state secularism – laïcité – French Muslims and the Muslim world.
What isn't so widely told is how this affects teenagers like Yosra, who just want to get the best education they can, but feel constantly othered because of their Muslim identity. Recent terror attacks have fuelled an anti-Muslim rhetoric that these students feel targeted by. “It has nothing to do with us, it’s not our fault. But they are creating links between this and us,” Yosra says.
One of her friends was harassed in the subway by a woman who asked her to remove her veil. A grocery store in Nîmes, a town in the South of France, put a sign on their door saying that women wearing the veil would not be allowed in. Yosra had pictures of the signs on her phone, which she had found on Twitter.
I spent a year following Yosra and her friends as they worked towards being admitted to one of the best schools in France. When I first spoke to them in January, the coronavirus was barely even mentioned in the news. So much has changed since then. But their journey still illuminates the real story of division in France, that isn't just between religion and the state, but between the rich and the poor, those who live inside the walls, and those who don't.
When Yosra was a junior in her low-income high school on the outskirts of Paris, she did what most high schoolers do. She started thinking about what she would do after graduation. Always an exceptional student, she had chosen to focus on French literature, philosophy and languages, including Latin. Yosra aspired to attend one of France’s best universities, following the lead of her older sister, who was studying business in Paris.
Yosra’s sister had been encouraging her since she was 12 years old to consider applying for a place at the prestigious Institute of Political Studies, commonly known as Sciences Po, one of France's exclusive, private social sciences universities. For working class students from so-called disadvantaged high schools, entry into any of the nation’s top flight grandes écoles seems next to impossible.
The single exception was Sciences Po, offering ways for disadvantaged children of poor and working class, often immigrant, families to have a shot at a first-class higher education. A degree from one of the grandes écoles can mean a better job and network. For Yosra it would mean an entirely new social class.
“The media only comes when something bad happens here.”
In Stains, where Yosra grew up, huge housing projects surround a village-like centre. In the periphery, big snake-like buildings constitute the clos Saint-Lazare, a low-income housing area, where local gangs are known to have their headquarters. The few cafes are populated by older men, gambling and smoking, and are mostly avoided by the younger generations. Students use the local McDonalds as one of the only places to hang out. When Yosra walks around, many people recognise her, and greet her with a friendly “salaam alaikum.”
Yosra’s family was pretty strict growing up, she was not allowed to leave the house without telling her parents. One time when she was a senior in high school, her class got out late and her mum showed up in front of her school to make sure she wasn’t wasting time on the way back.
“My mom knows that it takes me exactly 30 minutes to get home from school, and that classes end at 6:40PM, if I am not home exactly 30 minutes after that, she will be in the street looking for me.”
Yosra spent most of her free time studying, her parents found anything below a top grade disappointing, she says.
They supported her decision to apply to Sciences Po in the heart of Paris, setting aside their concerns about the hour-long subway trip on the Metro Line 13, which has an unsafe reputation. But out of the several campuses that the school offers around France, Yosra only applied to the Paris campus, as she wanted to continue to live at home.
Yosra had always been an excellent student. In middle school, she was chosen along with two others to attend Henry IV or Louis Le Grand, two of the oldest and most exclusive public high schools in Paris. To the dismay of her teachers, she turned them down, and stayed at her school in Stains. “It would be a real accomplishment to prove that no matter which high school you went to, you can succeed,” she told her teachers at the time.
It was an optimistic view. For the vast majority of students in France, the name of your high school plays a huge role in determining what university you can attend — studies show that three in five Sciences Po students come from the top five Parisian high schools.
But against these odds, Yosra was accepted into her first choice, and in September 2020 started at the Paris campus of Sciences Po, the best social science university in France.
Mohamed, 18, was in the same year as Yosra at Lycée Maurice Utrillo, their high school in Stains. He likes to be called Napoleon because he admires the French general – he learned about his victories in Raymond Aron’s Philosopher of War, a historical book of military strategy he was just finishing reading for fun when we first met in January.
Mohamed also said, only half joking, that he sometimes has to imitate Napoleon when violence breaks out in his neighbourhood.
Mohamed and Yosra’s former school is sometimes in the news for the wrong reasons. In November 2017, students blocked the school’s entrance with chains and bins, protesting the recent reform to the university admissions service (similar to UCAS in the UK or the Common App in the US), which put an emphasis on which high schools students came from, effectively making it harder for them to enter the best universities. Mohamed said that in order to get to class, he had to organise his classmates “like soldiers, and I told them you distract them while the rest of us push forward.”
The media often comes to Lycée Maurcie Utrillo to report on these protests (“blocus” as they are called in France), and eventual violent events. The high school is situated at the crossroads between three towns: Stains, Saint-Denis and Pierrefitte, which makes it the rallying point for rival gangs of each town to meet and fight.
But according to Mohamed, the media overstates the idea of Stains as a violent place. “The media only comes when something bad happens here,” he said. He remembered once when TV cameras circled the school, asking students if they were scared to live in the neighbourhood. Mohamed tried to measure the narrative, saying that these incidents are rare. But he was cut from the final broadcast.
When the newspaper Liberation, wrote an article about their high-school with the headline “Maurice Utrillo: the path to death,” some students sent a letter to the editor, challenging this narrative. The paper never responded.
“The media also claimed that we had halal food in our dining rooms which is false, like we were doing satanic rites.”
Mohamed is also now at Sciences Po, studying at one of the school’s campuses in Reims, in the east of France, with a curriculum dedicated to the study of the African continent. He lived alone for the first time, in a small affordable housing apartment that he paid for with his two scholarships.
After the murder of Samuel Paty, the teacher who was beheaded after showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Mohamed’s English language class observed a minute of silence, followed by a heated debate in English. When asked what he thought about it, Mohamed admitted that English was not his strong suit and that he has “no idea of what was being said.”
He tries to stay out of these debates. “I tell myself that I have left for a mission and that I should focus on work, I am here to succeed,” he says, adding that his biggest worry is to pass his first year exams scheduled to take place in December.
Like any other student, Mohamed’s university experience was impacted by COVID-19. Orientation week was cancelled, which made it harder to make friends, and when classes went online he found himself alone in his small subsidised apartment in Reims, where he even managed to burn pasta. He is now back at home where he says he has trouble focusing on his homework, in the midst of his five siblings.
Yosra, Mohamed and their friend Khadija had discussed a feeling of exclusion while passing around a bag of french fries at the Stains McDonald’s back in January. Before the pandemic, we met in person to discuss dreams to enter the best French universities, and the obstacles in their ways. They described a double feeling of alienation: they do not fully belong to their parent’s home country anymore, but still feel excluded in France, due to their religious beliefs and origins. “I am only at home in the plane,” Yosra says.
Mohamed pointed to an article in the online journal Atlantico, which claimed their high school had hidden prayer rooms, something that is completely illegal under the French secularism law. Khadija felt targeted as well. “The media also claimed that we had halal food in our dining rooms which is false, like we were doing satanic rites,” she said.
Under France’s laïcité laws, Khadija, who is also Muslim, had to take off the veil she only started wearing last year every morning before entering high school. She said that many young women, uncomfortable at the requirement, hide their hair under hoodies at recess, but even then are forced to remove them in class. (The law is different for university, and she is now allowed to keep her veil on when she goes to class.)
Although the French model of secularism is supposed to hide differences under a mask of national unity, students are constantly reminded of their distinction. They recalled some professors bluntly stating that they would struggle to make it with their last names.
This feeling of exclusion has not fully disappeared even now that Mohamed, Yosra and Khadija made it to the best schools in the country. Mohamed told me over the phone in November that he still has trouble speaking up in class, and feels like he is not able to use the same formal language as his fellow students. “I feel like they know so much more than me, they are always asking such specific questions,” he says.
Khadija, who was not accepted to Sciences Po, is now studying law at the Sorbonne, where she is taken aback by how formally students speak, even when they are only among themselves.
Sciences Po is also the only elite university to have a semblance of affirmative action, even if it is not perfect. Since 2011, the school has created a separate admissions track for low-income students, and in 2019, Benedicte Durand, Sciences Po’s Vice President for academic affairs mandated that the school aim to admit 30 percent of students from low-income backgrounds.
Durand said that a feeling of alienation is common among students from less privileged backgrounds, especially for those who chose the Parisian campus. It’s hard for them to feel at ease, she says, “in a neighbourhood where any pair of shoes is 200 euros.”
Mohamed has big ambitions, however. Even back in January, when strikes were paralysing Paris, he explained he wanted a “power job.” “I’ve decided that instead of protesting and criticising the President, it’s better to take his place one day.” ●
This article has been updated.