Iapplied for a job as a teaching assistant because I had moved to Paris in the middle of the pandemic and was worried about finding work. I had another reason for applying: France seemed to be at war with itself, and schools were the battleground. The papers talked about violent classrooms and complacent teachers. One word in vogue was islamo-gauchisme, or ‘Islamo-leftism’, a dangerous brand of thinking that supposedly combined multiculturalism and lax educational standards. Even those on a mission to root it out struggled to define it: Frédérique Vidal, then minister for higher education, who declared a national inquiry into its prevalence, later said the term had no meaning. Meanwhile, Le Figaro published stories about the dangers of le wokisme. Invisible in all of this were the schools themselves.
I went to teach English in a lycée in Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of the capital, the poorest region in metropolitan France. At the first meeting for teaching assistants, at the start of the school year in September 2021, my new colleagues and I gathered in an auditorium and waited for two women from the Department of Education to tell us about our jobs. The other anglophone recruits were just out of university. We were shown a YouTube video called What the F*ck France. ‘I’ve got 99 problems and French administration is all of them!’ a British actor yelled. ‘We hope it’s a bit easier for you,’ one of the women said. She told us how to open a bank account and how to look for a place to live. Helping us any further with these tasks, she made clear, wasn’t her job.
As teaching assistants, she told us, we would be responsible for making the students talk in our native language for twelve hours a week. Our pay would be €976.48 a month. We were now agents of the French state. If we heard anything we thought might be discriminatory, even between students, we should report it to the head. ‘If you see young kids showing religious affiliations or expressing beliefs – tell someone,’ the woman said. ‘If you see a girl in a headscarf, you must report it.’ We were allowed to talk to the students about religion in our home country, but we couldn’t tell them what we believed in. The same was true of political ideas. A young teaching assistant raised his hand. ‘Is it OK to have this?’ Over the logo of his laptop he had pasted a sticker of the rose window in Notre-Dame. The woman looked at him. ‘We’re not that crazy.’
The journey to the lycée from my apartment in central Paris took about an hour: the last mile, by bus from the railway station, seemed to take as long as the first ten. I never knew whether or not the bus would be running. Once when I was waiting outside the station, I saw the Latin teacher helping a man who appeared to have overdosed. He had curled up by the vent of a bakery. An ambulance came. ‘What have you taken, sir?’ a paramedic asked. Students, already late for school, gathered to watch. Around the station were small houses built for a white working class that aspired to its own homes and gardens. The shops beyond catered to the local Muslim population. A hairdresser advertised a veil-free zone where women could get their hair done without worrying about the male gaze. By the time the school came into view, one suburb had been fully replaced by another: the cité – a cluster of tall white blocks – seemed to be separated from the rest of the banlieue.
The lycée was a large building with peeling walls, greenish grey to rusty red. The remains of a garden rotted at the entrance. Prefab annexes held overflow classes. Students jogged in their school clothes and sneakers around the running track. The school day lasted from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., so for much of the year the students came and went in the dark. The ones I met in my first week didn’t want to know what I believed in. They asked whether I knew I was named after a type of cake. Did I like French music? Had I tried McDonald’s? ‘I have seen Americans crying in the McDonald’s in Paris because the hamburger was too small,’ one of the teachers I was meant to assist said. What were my ambitions? Where else had I travelled? Did I own a gun? What did I think of French food? Was it true that the bread was better in France?
My students wore colourful tracksuits and Air Force Ones, or black shiny jeans, white sneakers and big sweatshirts. A lone goth called Agathe (whose name, like the others here, has been changed) told me she had difficulty with ‘empathy’ and always interpreted things literally. One 15-year-old asked me whether people would make fun of her accent if she studied abroad. Another girl said with some glee that she had recently ridden an electric scooter and almost run someone over. Her friend loved Korean boy bands and listening to podcasts about ‘adulting’.
The students asked me if I was ‘tyrannical’, like one of the teachers I was assisting. ‘She will throw you out the window!’ one of them told me with satisfaction. Unlike the American classrooms I was used to, French education still places a high value on rote memory. Students sit in rows facing the teacher, who gives them a leçon, which they are expected to learn by heart. At the end of each class, they write down what they have learned. At the beginning of each new session, they are quizzed on whether or not they have committed the previous lesson to memory. The teachers I worked with often had a robust attitude to these interrogations. In one class, the students were studying e-learning. The teacher had shown them a video called Simon’s Story, an advertisement for the Open University about a man who was discharged from the army and became a PE instructor. As the teacher quizzed the students, I resisted the impulse to raise my own hand.
Teacher: ‘Who is the video about?’
Teacher: ‘How do you pronounce that?’
Teacher: ‘What is his job?’
Student: ‘Simon became a PE teacher. His first name is Harmsworth.’
Teacher, shaking a fist at the student: ‘Is it his first name?’
Teacher: ‘What is a synonym for first name?’
Teacher: ‘OH MY GOD. Surname is family name. What is a synonym for first name? [Silence] What else is in the video?’
Student: ‘He had been trained?’
Teacher: ‘I can’t hear you.’
Teacher to a tiny boy in a tracksuit: ‘ARE YOU ALL RIGHT? You were surprised, you were yawning.’
Teacher, turning to the class: ‘Something happened to Simon. What?’
Student: ‘He might be fall sick.’
Teacher: ‘HAVE WE LEARNED PROBABILITY IN THE PAST TENSE?’
Another student: ‘Be possible?’
Teacher: ‘MY EARS ARE BLEEDING!’
She paused to write on the board, then turned to a boy whose bobbing head betrayed his sleepiness.
Teacher: ‘HAMZA, ARE YOU STILL WITH US? WHERE ARE YOU?’
Teacher: ‘YOUR BODY IS HERE BUT THE REST IS NOT. I WANT THE REST.’
Hamza: ‘His name is See-Mon. He got an accident in his leg. He worked in the school. He feel sad.’
I was not a good teacher. My students looked longingly out of the window. I strode around the classroom in a way I hoped would convey authority. One class was rowdy, so I gave them a quiz on Thanksgiving, a unit we had already completed. They complained that they had done a unit on Thanksgiving every year since primary school. Asked to describe the food eaten at that time of year, they wrote ‘candy’ and ‘soup’.
Unlike teachers of French language and literature, who have to stick to Molière and La Princesse de Clèves, English teachers are relatively free in their choice of material. One teacher began the year with a study of racism in Australian society. ‘Australia is home to the world’s oldest continuous cultures,’ the students read. ‘It is estimated that migrants contribute more than $10 billion to the Australian economy in the first ten years of settlement.’ In another class, students were learning about the idea of the self-made man. The exemplar was Frederick Douglass. One student declared that the American Dream was a Cold War invention. Each gave a presentation on the self-made person of his or her choosing. Two chose Cristiano Ronaldo, and two chose Rihanna, who ‘is ever evolving and embracing change’. Omar, a slight boy with an impeccable accent, chose Warren Buffet, who ‘invests in goods and companies that make money’ and whose ‘techniques are said to be unorthodox. He does not have short-term ideas … he is some sort of visionary.’ I asked one class to impersonate famous people. One student pretended to be Will Smith and tried to slap a classmate. Another wanted to be Brigitte Macron. ‘Do you know that your husband is the most hated man in France?’ her neighbour asked her.
Newspapers here frequently characterise schools in the banlieues as cradles of violence. After the history teacher Samuel Paty was murdered by a Chechen immigrant in 2020, this view became further entrenched and racialised. A year after Paty’s death, the then French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said that Paty would be honoured in schools around the country. There was talk of a minute’s silence. Over lunch in the staffroom that day, three teachers said they wouldn’t mark Paty’s death in class. One teacher had considered it but decided against. Another teacher refused to consider it. Commemorative silence was a blunt instrument, she said, which would make her students think they were supposed to feel guilt by association.
Before I started working at the lycée, I thought that schools were the backbone of republican culture in France. But my students in Saint-Denis knew they weren’t equal citizens in the eyes of the state. They were sorted from the start – by their neighbourhood, their economic status, their results in the various inegalitarian streams of the French baccalauréat. Over the last twenty years teachers’ wages have fallen in real terms by between 15 and 25 per cent, and the profession has gone from being solidly middle class to economically insecure. The effects are felt most keenly by students in places like Saint-Denis. Absent teachers are so infrequently replaced by supply teachers that the average student in the banlieues loses a year’s teaching compared with a peer in central Paris. At a union meeting someone said that supply teachers were only sent in when parents complained. Few of them did, not knowing that the only way to help your children in France is to yell louder than everyone else.
The teachers tried to get the students out and about as much as possible, since they were unlikely to be able to afford such trips themselves. We often went to the cinema in a nearby town which was in the throes of gentrification and shortly to be linked to Paris as part of an ambitious urban renewal project that will extend the Metro into the banlieues. New buildings advertised large sunny apartments. The cinema was beside a roundabout. I went with a class of economics students to a movie about organising domestic workers, directed by François Ruffin, a senior figure in the left-wing party La France Insoumise. I took another group to see a three-hour adaptation of a Christopher Marlowe play during which at least three of the actors stripped off. The movie that the students seemed to dislike the most was I Am Greta, a documentary about Greta Thunberg. We watched her travel around Europe by train, practise her speeches with her dad and sail, nauseously, across the Atlantic to speak at the UN.
Back in class, the teacher asked them whether Thunberg was a ‘self-made woman’. ‘She is a teenager,’ Lila replied. ‘She is not a superhero. We cannot expect a 16-year-old to save us.’ She was interrupted by Alice, who walked with crutches: ‘Politicians know we are in crisis. They know they cannot change something. We can’t reduce carbon footprint. It is really hard.’ Omar intervened: ‘She can’t say she wants to save earth and not talk about people. The US and Europe have options, but not Africa. You can’t just say “change” but “I don’t know how.” It is naive to come without offering a solution.’ Olympe, who once discussed the Greek etymology of a word in class, said: ‘She tries to raise awareness of politicians. The point is to make politicians realise how much it’s dangerous.’
Alice: ‘You say it’s hard to make change, but there are solutions. But the only thing people think about is money.’
Olympe: ‘You say that she has no solutions, but she reduces the carbon. She is vegan.’
Omar: ‘The large majority of people are poor. It is uneven to propose those things. Most people who can afford these options are a minority of a minority of a minority.’
Another student cut in: ‘At the beginning of class, people were complaining there are no solutions. When she gives them, people criticise them. We should be grateful she is saying what no one else is saying.’
Olympe: ‘She is always talking about poor people. Not talking to them.’
Alice: ‘Many people fight in the shadows without support.’
Lila: ‘She started at the bottom mentally. Even if she is rich, she doesn’t use this money.’
Alice: ‘Without money she cannot buy a boat to travel. This is not possible for you or me, the people in this room.’
When the presidential election came round in April 2021, it was barely discussed. Parts of the school had been falling apart. The cafeteria was shut for several weeks. The teachers wondered whether they should contact the press. Then it reopened. The photocopier broke. Far-right candidates campaigned to make schools focus on ‘authority’. Marine Le Pen promised to get rid of a programme that allowed immigrant students to take classes in the language their parents spoke at home. She didn’t need to. Macron had already cut these classes in his fight against ‘Islamist separatism’.
Although education was in the news all the time, it often felt as though the schools themselves had been forgotten about by the government. According to a teachers’ union, 62 per cent of middle and high schools would begin the new academic year this September without enough staff. I learned about new Covid restrictions via Twitter. The education minister, on holiday in Ibiza, announced new rules about Covid tests. Some weeks later, a school administrator dropped off a box of about four hundred tests that had been sitting in her office and were due to expire at the end of the week.
I ran an English club where I would watch the students play Bananagrams. Girls came every week and gossiped in English over the tiles, looking up to see if I was listening to them talk about their crushes. One of my students was accepted into an after school programme and told me about visiting Baudelaire’s grave. Macron was re-elected, the cabinet reshuffled. I reapplied to teach in the new school year but never received an acceptance or a rejection. Like many of his predecessors, Pap Ndiaye, the new education minister, sends his children to a private school.
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