France takes battle against radical Islam into schools

Paris - France announced new measures on Thursday aimed at helping schools combat radical Islam, racism and anti-Semitism in reaction to deadly Islamist attacks two weeks ago.

The moves, including more teacher training and civic and ethics education in the country's secular curriculum, come after dozens of schools complained of pupils refusing to join a Jan. 8 nationwide minute of silence for the victims.

French symbols such as the flag and national anthem will be explicitly celebrated and one day, Dec. 9, set aside as a "Day of Secularism". Poor pupils will receive more grants and efforts will be made to make school intakes more socially diverse.

While millions of French marched to defend freedom of expression after the killings at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, others have described its cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad as offensive and rejected the "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") movement of national unity.

In an unprecedented indictment by a French leader of the country's failure to integrate large immigrant populations from North Africa and elsewhere, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said this week the aftermath of the attacks demonstrated that a form of "social and ethnic apartheid" existed in France.

"Secularism must be applied everywhere, because that is how everyone will be able to live in peace with each other," Valls told a news conference.

A thousand educationalists will receive training to help teachers deal with pupils' questions on France's secular tradition, citizenship, prejudices, with an early-warning system created to identity and deal with worrying behaviour.

Three home-grown gunmen of Algerian and African origin killed 17 people in three days of violence, starting with the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and ending with a siege at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

Around 200 incidents in which the national minute of silence was disrupted in schools were reported to the education ministry and social media testify to differences among many pupils about the limits of freedom of expression.

Few dispute that many children, notably from immigrant backgrounds, feel outsiders in a French school system once heralded as among the best in the world but now showing cracks. Yet there is no full consensus on the causes or the remedies.

"There has long been a code of silence on these kind of problems in the national education system," said Valerie Marty, president of the national parents association Peep.

Others argue the root cause lies in a "ghettoisation" of immigrant populations in underprivileged zones around big cities.