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The French Plan to Fix Inequality—by Ignoring It

Whether in France or in the United States, school reform alone can't fix racism and poverty. But Emanuel Macron seems to think otherwise.

Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

In Paris, a highway called “the periphery” separates the privileged in the city from the marginalized “banlieues” or suburbs. Some residents of the banlieues even joke that they may as well need a passport to cross. But as students around the country head back to school this month, thousands of teachers are set to traverse this line, heading into some of the most underprivileged school districts in the country.   

The national education reforms being implemented this fall in France—including cutting class sizes, adding more evaluations, and banning mobile phone use—are the latest attempt by the government of Emmanuel Macron to close the staggering school performance gap between low-achieving students, who often live in the banlieues, and wealthier, predominantly white students. Macron’s government has heralded the reduction of certain primary school class sizes from 24 students per teacher to 12 students as a flagship reform—one that he started rolling out in 2017 and that he promises will transform public education, pouring teachers into the nation’s underperforming schools. Yet at the heart of the plan lies a questionable assumption: that the achievement gap in the banlieues can be solved through education reform alone.

In fact, the banlieues’ lagging academic performance is entangled with issues affecting low-income areas almost everywhere: low wages, high unemployment, and perhaps above all, systemic segregation. Institutional racism and a French system of social cachet created this problem decades ago. Some experts fear that the new measures are not so much a Band-Aid on a gaping wound (insufficient and ineffective) as bad medicine—liable to cause further damage.

“I think the proposed reforms even risk increasing inequalities,” said Philippe Meirieu, a French researcher in pedagogical science at the University of Lyon and a former left-wing political candidate. Adding more student evaluations, for instance, might only fill the most prestigious establishments with students who are labeled “good” from a young age, widening the lag with schools that are already struggling, according to Meirieu. He went so far as to call certain measures—including the option to switch from five days of primary school class per week to four—“catastrophic.” The measure was introduced primarily as a cost-saving technique, and its effect will be strongest in families where parents cannot afford to spend the day engaged in cultural or educational opportunities with their kids, giving wealthy children yet another advantage.

A survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2015 found that of the 72 countries surveyed, France was the country where a student’s social, economic, and cultural background had the greatest effect on school performance. Just two percent of students from low-income backgrounds were among the top performers while 40 percent were characterized as struggling in school.

Many of those low performers come from the banlieues, which first emerged outside of urban centers like Paris in the post-war years, their towering housing projects welcoming an influx of immigrants from North Africa. In the following decades the banlieues increasingly became associated with crime, drugs, low employment, and most recently radical Islam. The link between the banlieue and radical Islam is often more correlative than causal, but certain strains of extremism resonate in the banlieue because they speak to a reality of exclusion.

The borders of the banlieue fall along racial and ethnic lines, perpetuating a cycle of institutional racism common to cities in many countries: immigrants and people of color are segregated in their housing options, end up in schools with fewer resources, and in turn have trouble finding good jobs. Without a good job, they are likely to end up in segregated housing projects, where their children are cycled through the same poor schools. The schools in low-income neighborhoods also tend to have the least experienced teachers, who are often ill-equipped to deal with learning or behavioral issues.

Unemployment levels in low-income neighborhoods in France are three times the national average, according to government statistics published in 2016. And residents’ qualifications don’t always help them: The same study found that residents from low-income areas who had a master’s degree were still 22 percent less likely to find a job than their metropolitan counterparts.

Social cachet plays a strong role in determining who succeeds in France. The Republic insists that its institutions are blind to race, ethnicity, and social class. Yet children who attend schools of a certain name, who are taken on cultural excursions from a young age, who are taught the specific codes of behavior endemic to French culture tend to do better—as do children with certain family names. A 2010 Stanford study found that a résumé submitted under a typically Muslim name like “Khadija” was two-and-a-half times less likely to receive a response than one submitted with identical qualifications under a non-Muslim name.

“We live in a country where equal human rights are declared in our constitution as a founding principle, and at the same time where school inequalities are structural. They have existed for a long time,” said Michel Kokoreff, a sociologist who has been studying the banlieues for more than three decades.

The government has made class size its signature reform effort. On the surface the idea seems unassailable, creating good media buzz. But it doesn’t address all of the other social and environmental factors that contribute to ongoing inequality.

Macron’s government has a history of denying the role played by race and ethnicity. In 2017, a teacher’s union attempted to host a two-day conference about “discrimination in the national education system,” open only to teachers of color. The education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer threatened to file a lawsuit against the union, claiming that even using the term “state racism” constituted national defamation.

For a former cabinet member under socialist President Francois Hollande, who himself campaigned relatively progressively in his presidential bid, Emmanuel Macron has proved a disappointment to leftists. The president has spent the past year attempting to situate himself as a new kind of politician, grandstanding on progressive causes like the environment, all while constructing a typically conservative agenda, including slashing labor protections and increasing executive power. Blanquer, a former high-ranking official in the Republican government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has similarly tried to rebrand himself.

“The important idea is that if we take the political agenda of Jean-Michel Blanquer and Emmanuel Macron as a whole, this measure is very isolated,” said Pierre Clement, a lecturer at the University of Rouen with a doctorate degree in sociology. “My fear is that that the government will stop its efforts here.”

Clement expressed some of the same fears as Meirieu, noting that these reforms could, paradoxically, make matters worse. He pointed to the move to allow families’ greater choice in where their children go to school (a promise first made by Sarkozy). Historically, greater choice in school is also accompanied by greater inequality, as this freedom often only serves to drain wealthier students from low-income districts who can afford to go somewhere else.

With the central structures kept intact, educational inequality will continue to flourish. And reforms that address the symptom and not the disease—namely, systemic inequality—seem likely to help politicians more than students.