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In the eth­ni­cally mixed Paris sub­urb of Krem­lin-bice­tre, a group of chil­dren sit qui­etly at their desks while out­side their class­mates frolic in the au­tumn sun­shine.

“Ay­nayaskunuadel?(where­doe­sadel live)” teacher Hanan asks the chil­dren, point­ing to a text­book draw­ing of a boy and girl in a vil­lage with a school and a mosque.

Hands shoot up, and a lit­tle girl replies that he lives be­hind the “madrassa,” or school.

Wel­come to Lis­sane, one of a grow­ing num­ber of pri­vate lan­guage schools where the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of North African im­mi­grants go to learn clas­si­cal Ara­bic on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noons, when schools are closed, and on the week­end.

While Hanan’s stu­dents, aged 7 to 10, study in­ter­rog­a­tive pro­nouns in one of seven class­rooms housed in a for­mer ofice build­ing, a group of four-year-olds next door is singing a nurs­ery rhyme about the parts of the body.

So far, so nor­mal, with the no­table dif­fer­ence that fe­male teach­ers wear the Mus­lim head­scarf, a gar­ment banned along with other re­li­gious sym­bols in state schools.

But it is not so much the head­scarves as the “Is­lamic sciences”, or reli­gion lessons, con­ducted at Lis­sane and many other pri­vate Ara­bic lan­guage schools, that have drawn scru­tiny in a coun­try that has an un­easy re­la­tion­ship with its Mus­lim mi­nor­ity, the largest in Europe at an es­ti­mated ive mil­lion.

Lis­sane’s co-founder Ab­del­ghani Se­bata, a 37-year-old Al­ge­rian law grad­u­ate,saysthatthere­li­gious­com­po­nent of the course — which in­cludes learn­ing verses of the Qu­ran — is “very light.”

“We leave the re­li­gious side to the fam­i­lies,” he said.

But at the many mosques that also teach chil­dren to read and write the Ara­bic used in ofi­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions, lit­er­a­ture and me­dia across the Arab world, as well as in the Qu­ran, Is­lam is the main fo­cus.


A re­port on rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion last month by the In­sti­tute Mon­taigne, a re­spected lib­eral French think-tank, warned that Ara­bic classes had be­come “the best way for fol­low­ers to at­tract young peo­ple into their mosques and (pri­vate) schools”.

In re­sponse, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Jean-michel Blan­quer — one of cen­trist Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s most com­bat­ive min­is­ters — an­nounced plans to take back con­trol.

Ar­gu­ing that clas­si­cal Ara­bic should be treated like all other “great lan­guages” such as Rus­sian and Chi­nese, he vowed to de­velop its teach­ing in state schools in or­der to com­bat “the drift to­wards self-ghet­toi­sa­tion” in pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions.

His pro­posal drew a fu­ri­ous re­ac­tion from right-wingers who view the use of Ara­bic by North African im­mi­grants with hos­til­ity, see­ing it as ev­i­dence of a fail­ure to in­te­grate.

Luc Ferry, was ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter un­der for­mer cen­tre-right pres­i­dent Jac­ques Chirac, ques­tioned whether the govern­ment was bent on “ighting Is­lamism or bring­ing it into pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion” — sug­gest­ing that by giv­ing Ara­bic more promi­nence it was do­ing the lat­ter.


Hakim El Karoui, author of the In­sti­tute Mon­taigne re­port which re­vived a long-run­ning de­bate about France’s in­sis­tence that im­mi­grants ditch their eth­nic iden­ti­ties on ar­rival and em­brace French­ness, said he was “not at all” sur­prised by the re­ac­tion on the right.

He points to the in­creas­ing scarcity of schools of­fer­ing Ara­bic — France’s sec­ond-most spo­ken lan­guage, and one used by over 430 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide — as ev­i­dence of their re­luc­tance to teach a sub­ject as­so­ci­ated with “prob­lem­atic” im­mi­grants.

Only 567 pri­mary school­child­ren stud­ied Ara­bic last year, a third of the num­ber who took Chi­nese as their manda­tory sec­ond lan­guage. Most chose English.

In sec­ondary school, just 11,200 pupils stud­ied Ara­bic, which is of­fered in a hand­ful of schools in each city, mostly elite city-cen­tre col­leges.


With de­mand far out­strip­ping sup­ply, par­ents have turned to mosques, re­li­gious as­so­ci­a­tions and pri­vate schools like Lis­sane, which to­gether at­tract some 80,000 stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to a govern­ment es­ti­mate cited by the In­sti­tute Mon­taigne.

Ines Kridaine, a 35-year-old Tu­nisian liv­ing in France for the past 13 years, en­rolled her daugh­ter Ikram in classes at Lis­sane at the age of four.

Five years later Ikram can un­der­stand her Tu­nisian rel­a­tives, fol­low Ara­bic news chan­nels and read the Qu­ran. But Ines, who wears a head­scarf and a loose abaya robe, still wishes Ara­bic was taught dur­ing class time.

“It should be treated like any other lan­guage,” she said.

Writ­ing in Le Monde news­pa­per last month, the head of the pres­ti­gious Arab World In­sti­tute in Paris, for­mer So­cial­ist min­is­ter Jack Lang, de­fended Ara­bic as the lan­guage of “Arab Chris­tians, Jews, Mus­lims and athe­ists, bloggers, so­cial me­dia, young peo­ple, writ­ers, po­ets, artists, singers, hip-hop­pers, sci­en­tists, re­searchers, jour­nal­ists, com­pa­nies and in­no­va­tors”.

It’s a view shared by Jerome Gercet, prin­ci­pal of an in­ter­na­tional sec­ondary school in the south-eastern city of Greno­ble that has to turn away ap­pli­cants for its Ara­bic sec­tion each year.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, most of his stu­dents go on to study po­lit­i­cal science, medicine, busi­ness, engi­neer­ing, arts or ad­min­is­tra­tion.

That’s proof, he said, that Ara­bic is “a sub­ject of ex­cel­lence.”

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