World news

In Morocco, teaching French-style secularism

They are about twenty students, seated around a large table in the media library. The objective of the day: to prepare a presentation on mass crimes during the Second World War, in anticipation of the great oral examination of the baccalaureate. In this final year class of the Lycée Français International André-Malraux, in the chic Souissi district of the Moroccan capital Rabat, the students follow the French curriculum. The establishment is part of the International School and University Office (OSUI), the Moroccan version of the French Secular Mission (MLF).

The exchanges are in French, tinged with sentences in Moroccan Arabic. As in a public high school in France, it is impossible to see a religious sign displayed by the students, who are almost all Moroccans. And for good reason, the internal regulations prohibit the wearing of religious outfits, while the wearing of religious symbols is strictly prohibited for teachers.

A model opposed to French secularism

Before they begin their research, within the framework of the report of The cross, the students and their teacher Saskia Schmitt begin an exchange around secularism.“You remember that you studied the subject a few months ago. What can you say about it? »

A first hand rises. “I don’t really remember…” launches Mehdi (1), frankly. Imane is more talkative: “Until recently, I hadn’t even asked myself the question of the place of religion in high school. But, one day when it was cold, I pulled my scarf up over my hair and the management asked me to take it off. It surprised me a bit.” she remembers.

At Morocco, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, Islam is the state religion and Islamic education is compulsory in Moroccan public and private schools. Freedom of conscience is not guaranteed by the Constitution, which recognizes only Muslim and Jewish citizens. A model contrary to French secularism, the study of which is part of the moral and civic education program.

The discussion heats up. “I think the secular system is very good. It allowed me to take an interest in other religions and cultures. Afterwards, I don’t understand why we ban religious signs, as long as we don’t try to influence others, ” Hasan argues. Omar has experienced two different systems: “I was in the Moroccan private system, where we have an Islamic education. Islam is open to other religions. But I find it unfortunate that we only have one point of view. »

Promoting student emancipation

A history and geography teacher, Saskia Schmitt began practicing in Rabat in 2007. “I then asked myself the question: how to teach secularism in a country where Islam is the state religion? », she remembers. “I was told: Islam should of course not be criticized as such. But religions are, in any case, only approached in their historicity. she continues, even if some subjects are more complicated than others, such as blasphemy.

The André-Malraux high school welcomes around 2,000 students, from kindergarten to high school, of which nearly 90% are Moroccan. “We offer secular education, but we are not intended to be missionaries of secularism. Secularism is absolute freedom of conscience. And the idea is to promote the emancipation of students. This is our vision, which does not prevent us from adapting it according to the different local contexts”, describes Jean-Marc Merriaux, general manager of the MLF and OSUI.

Alexandre Balet, professor of history and geography, taught for several years in Seattle before arriving in Morocco in 2021. “I know that some colleagues here prefer not to take up this theme. You can quickly feel like you are walking on eggshells. While, ultimately, I am much more tense than my students! They like to deal with these subjects considered to be sensitive, which inspire them a lot”, describes the teacher, who is also a pedagogical referent.

“You have to be careful, and sometimes make compromises. Young girls, for example, wanted to defend homosexuality (repressed in Morocco, editor’s note) as part of a public speaking contest and a semi-public activity. I told them: yes we are in a French school, but we must respect the laws of the country”, relates Sophie Churlet, the principal of the Lycée Malraux, who assures that speaking would have been easier within a class.

“Parents come here above all for the educational quality”

The principal does not recall having had to deal with an incident related to a religious sign or proselytism, with one or two exceptions. “I was much more confronted with these questions when I worked in public high schools in the Paris region”, she describes.

By enrolling their children in an OSUI establishment, parents are well aware that secularism is one of the association’s values. “I remember an interview with a family, when I was director of the kindergarten in Malraux. They wondered how History, the creation of the world, the sciences were taught… I felt that there would be a difficulty. I told them: you will have to decide if you accept that what is said at school may be different from what is said at home. They preferred to give up enrolling their child,” says Marylin Rassine, now a trainer at the CDP, the MLF training center.

Although some parents insist on enrolling their children in a secular school, out of conviction, this is generally not the main motivation. “Parents come here above all for the educational quality that they feel they cannot find in the Moroccan system”, believes Sophie Churlet.

In Morocco, the public school is going through a deep crisis which has driven the middle and upper classes away. French education thus welcomes 50,000 students in search of a pedagogy perceived as being of quality, the possibilities offered to study abroad, but also the prestige associated with the French language in the country.

Facilities exist

French schools are nevertheless reserved for a tiny minority, while enrollment fees at Malraux high school can go up to around €6,000 per year. “When you come to Malraux, you are somewhat in an overseas territory. Everything is quite different from the rest of Morocco,” summarizes a student, Youssef.

If secularism is a fundamental value of the OSUI, arrangements exist. Course days are, for example, shortened during Ramadan. In addition, the pupils do not fail to point out what they consider to be contradictions. “On the hallway wall, it says ‘Merry Christmas!’, and we’ve made a Christmas tree right next to it. Is this normal, in a secular context? », asks Kenza. For Ghali, on the other hand, “We celebrate Christmas, Achoura, etc. But it is more festive than religious”.

In the media library, Saskia Schmitt calls for resuming research for the presentation of the day. “In the answers we provide to their many questions, we must take into account the red lines not to be exceeded, comments the teacher. By integrating all of this, we manage to do our job: we teach them critical thinking, and we give them the keys to understanding today’s world. »


A century of secular education abroad

The French Secular Mission (MLF) was created in 1902, when the debate on secularism agitated France. The Law of Separation of Church and State was passed in 1905.

The MLF was founded with the aim of developing secular French education and providing a counterweight to Catholic and Protestant missions. Its values ​​are: secularism, multilingualism, citizenship and humanism.

Endowed with the status of association law 1901, it manages 109 French educational establishments abroad in 39 countries, educating more than 60,000 students, the majority of whom are foreigners.

Its Moroccan branch, the International School and University Office (OSUI), was created in 1996 in agreement with the Moroccan State. It welcomes 10,000 students, nearly 90% of whom are Moroccans.

The MLF celebrated its 120th anniversary in Rabat last May and organized its congress there on the theme “The world after”.


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