France has the largest percentage of the Muslim population in the Western world, constituting 8.8% of the country’s citizens (1). Since 2015, an escalation in domestic terrorist attacks and a rise in the number of radicalized citizens has been a cause for increasing concern (2).
Despite existing stigmas against the Islamic-French population, research has shown a steady increase in Islamophobia (3) as the fear of radicalization and terrorism becomes more tangible. The result is a dangerous cycle in which the increased marginalization of immigrants creates a higher vulnerability and thus a greater chance of being radicalized, especially among young people.
To Fréderic Chavanne, a son of French colonists who grew up in Morrocco, cultural inequalities and discrimination have been pertinent realities his whole life. At a young age, Fréderic recalls discovering that he was from a country that had claimed a foreign territory, which allowed him to relate to immigrants living in France.
“I realized that there is this inequality and that immigrants in France are subjected to the same inequality— they feel looked down upon by French Europeans because of the history.”
Both passionate changemakers, Fréderic and his wife Nathalie Chavanne conceptualized Oui Act, a program aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in economically and socially sensitive areas of France.
“Many of these young people are sons and daughters of immigrants, they are in disadvantaged social situations and feel looked down upon by other French people. These sessions aim to give value to each student’s cultural diversity and it’s place in French culture.” said Fréderic.
With support from Mustardseed, Oui Act launched its pilot program at a school in Massy, a southern suburb of Paris, in 2018. The following year, thanks to the dedication of school administrators and teachers, the project was renewed at the Lycée de L’ENNA high school in Saint Denis, a northern suburbs of Par- is which has the reputation of being one of the most crime-ridden ghettos in France and is stigmatized for its high percentage of immigrant and impoverished residents.
These young people are constantly scolded and reprimanded by their teachers who tell them they are undisciplined and that they are bad, so they live in this idea of themselves.
The Oui Act program is divided into ten one-hour sessions, during which a pair of representatives, usually Fréderic and Nathalie , engage with students on sensitive topics such as race, religion, and societal issues. At the end of the ten-week program, students are encouraged to come up with group projects to bene t their community. Through this participative approach, the program hopes to create a safe space for expression, foster a sense of teamwork, and develop critical thinking skills among students.
“We are trying to show them that by helping the community, you also help yourself.”
Sessions focus on thinking critically about the news, authority, and discrimination, among other topics. One of the sessions is hosted by a police officer who is invited to speak candidly with the students—most of whom fear or dislike systems of authority which they feel are in place to control them rather than protect their rights.
In one memorable case, the students complained about feeling targeted and mistreated by certain police officers in their community. To their surprise, the officer urged them to complain if they felt officers were taking advantage of their power and not abiding by the law. The impact of these meetings [with the police officer] is very important.
“If we favour this cultural exposure, we help them escape the negative mentality of their neighbourhood.”
The two pilot runs have been successful, and some meaningful projects have emerged from some of the groups. For a final project, one group wrote a letter to the police chief to report the injustices they felt at the hands of the local police, which was hand-delivered to the station by one of the students.
Another group organized a gathering where students were invited to dress in their culture’s traditional clothing and bring traditional dishes from their culture. Students also organized cultural visits to an Egyptian History Museum as well as to the city of Versailles. They told us that they wanted to get out of the place that confines them all year – said Fréderic.
While some of the student’s projects don’t technically constitute civic engagement, Fréderic sees value in encouraging the desire to accomplish something positive as a group.
“If we favor this cultural exposure we help them escape the negative mentality of their neighborhood.”
Because the program is still young, Fréderic and his four-person team are learning as they go, and sometimes need to improvise. “We have students who accumulate a lot of social and psychological difficulties, some even have difficulty reading and writing in French, so if we give them things to write they are hesitant because they are afraid of making mistakes,
They are very conscious of injustice in the world. Many of the students have difficult situations at home, while at school interracial tension is not uncommon. The Oui Act sessions are sometimes interrupted by what Fréderic calls “negative leaders.” In one difficult group, Fréderic decided to take a new approach— Instead of following the program he spent the hour telling his personal story.
“My personal testimony kind of captivated them, it restored something, and we started again on a new basis,” said Fréderic. Above all, Oui Act hones in on one of the biggest challenges faced by modern society: the ability to dialogue with one another. “I think that with the yellow vest protests and all of the tensions that we have today, one of France’s problems is that we don’t have time for one another,” Fréderic said.
This article is republished from Mustardseed.