S. Pech / Shutterstock.com

In October, France experienced another spate of terrorist attacks over a span of two weeks. First was the gruesome beheading of an Évreux public-school teacher, Samuel Paty, after he showed a caricature of the prophet Muhammad in his class. The slaying received national attention and the French government responded swiftly, holding a state funeral for the teacher and cracking down on alleged Muslim extremists, including the students who reportedly identified their teacher to assassins. Then, three people were killed in a knife attack at a Catholic church in Nice. In response to the attacks, President Emmanuel Macron deployed soldiers to protect churches and schools and doubled security at France’s borders.

Prime Minister Jean Castex framed these attacks as violence against France’s core values. “With the attack against Samuel Paty, it was freedom of speech that was targeted,” he said. “With this attack in Nice, it is freedom of religion.”

Castex’s rhetoric of “freedom” places the attacks in a neat Republican frame. Schools are a place for free speech, churches a space for free religion: these assertions affirm that these institutions, and the work they do, are separate spheres of equal importance to the French national project.

Yet anyone with even a cursory knowledge of French history might raise their eyebrows at this neat assertion. If we trace the origins of the French Republican project, we find the two institutions at constant odds with one another, and the “freedoms” they are said to represent repeatedly compromised because of their potential—in this nation born in revolution—for promoting social equality.

Education has been a particularly fraught enterprise for French democracy. France’s public schools, said to be beacons of intellectual liberty and equal opportunity, have a long history of exclusion and discrimination. In the early nineteenth century, when François Guizot first proposed public education for the masses, critics opposed his plan because they feared that the poor, if overeducated, would grow discontented with their role as a laboring class. Thus, while the Guizot law of 1833 passed, encouraging free tuition at local primary schools for poor rural students, it never received sufficient funding.

In 1882, when the famous Ferry Laws, named after Minister of Public Instruction Jules Ferry, introduced a mandatory, secular public education system in France’s Third Republic, a similar fear led to separate and unequal education for girls. The domestic arts played a central role in the girls’ curriculum, few were admitted to secondary schools, and upon finishing their education, women were expected to spread the virtues of Republican motherhood by raising their sons to be citizens, and their daughters to be wives and mothers. Meanwhile, boys passed through a rigorous curriculum of civics, geography, and gymnastics, their intellects and bodies prepared for patriotic duties in the army and in government. Geography in particular played a key role: boys from diverse linguistic and cultural regions of France learned that such a thing as “France” existed, and that they were, indeed, its “citizens.”

Schools also had an important role to play in maintaining secularism in the political sphere. The project of educating, training, and making rural French workers into citizens—so famously described in Eugene Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen (1976)—necessarily involved a repudiation and redirection of the religious fervor that flourished outside the nation’s urban centers. Beginning in 1905, France’s schools—as organs of a secular state—were legally forbidden from espousing or endorsing any religion.

But this national program was also geared to containing women’s potential political role. According to the 1905 law that separated church and state in France, the role of the state was not just to allow for freedom of religion, but to “ensure liberty of conscience” that freed the individual from religion’s thrall. Within this increasingly robust vision of laïcité (secularity), women, perhaps because they were seen as particularly fervent in their embrace of religious and political extremism, were not to be trusted. Women were staunch Catholic defenders of the reactionary Vendée region during the French Revolution, and they were socialist pétroleuses (female fire-raisers) who had helped to burn Paris to the ground in 1870: as citizens, they had always seemed to threaten the purported stability of the nascent republic. Their meager education in public schools was meant to instill a sense of duty, submissiveness, and sensibility, and wrest them from the influence of priests.

If women were trained to recede from the public sphere, schools prepared men to translate ideas about religious salvation into an imperial project. The “civilizing mission,” as it would come to be known, sent French men (and some women) into an ever-expanding empire comprised of a mixture of former slave colonies, protectorates, and settler states around the globe. Their mission was to attempt to “civilize” the colonized masses—who, it went without saying, were not capable of being civilized – by extending the French project of secular education. Schools were to serve a similar purpose for indigenous populations as they had for peasant students in France: teach the French language, instill conformity to French culture and ideals, and at the same time, prevent students from learning enough to dream up a revolt.

Of course, these colonized people did dream up a revolt, one that was accelerated by World War II and driven by the new nationalisms unleashed by the Cold War. Decolonization cut a wide swath through France’s empire. Former slave colonies and territories opted for departmentalization, Vietnam fell from French control, and Algeria won its independence alongside a handful of African countries. These events shook France to its core. Furthermore, empire had unintended consequences: migrants from the overseas departments began to make their way back to the metropole to live alongside the formerly colonized, complicating – racially, culturally, and spiritually – what it meant to be a French citizen.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that it was in the context of this embarrassing imperial collapse that France finally enshrined laïcité into the Fifth Republic. From 1958 onward, the constitution declared, France would be an “indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.” Where Catholicism had once threatened France’s democratic project, Islam became a central target of fear and repression at the close of the twentieth century.

As organs of the Republic, public schools continued to play a vital role in shaping the boundaries of Frenchness. In a revised history curriculum, France’s lost empire was to be lamented, the good intentions of the Republic defended, and the nation’s role in global slavery all but forgotten. By the twenty-first century, as France became a destination for more migrants fleeing an unraveling Middle East, the contradictions between these histories of liberty and oppression were fully institutionalized. In 2003, the “law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols” forbade the wearing of hijabs (and, ostensibly, other religious symbols like kippahs and crucifixes) by teachers and students in France’s public schools. It was a flashpoint for France’s citizens of North African descent, who took to the streets to protest the law in large numbers. Once again, women’s religious affiliation was targeted by the French state as a sign of disloyalty to Republican values. To strengthen these policies, a 2005 law instructed teachers that “school courses should recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa.”

French citizens who hail from formerly colonized nations have contested this exclusion in their activism, in their writings, and in the revolutionary movements they generate within and outside France’s borders. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s recent claims of an extremist Muslim “enemy within” should be understood as a product of this tense relationship between education, religion, and citizenship in France. The purportedly uneducated, not sufficiently “French” immigrants living in the metropole have long been considered such an “enemy” to the French Republican project, echoes of the untrustworthy 19th century rural masses. Thus, it is no surprise schools and churches have remained arenas of exclusion and discrimination and are flashpoints for political violence.

If Black Lives Matter has fractured the American story—teaching many white people, for the first time, that the foundations of the United States government and the liberties it promotes were born in slavery and racism—France is due for a similar reckoning. Activists like Assa Traouré have ignited a growing movement to end police brutality against people of color in France. Feminists of North African descent have repeatedly challenged a state secularity (and a Republican feminism) that denies them the right to make choices about their own bodies.

Post-colonial criticism has also challenged the notion that it is immigrants who refuse to connect with the nation; instead, they argue, it is France that withdraws from those it brought, by force, into Frenchness. In a groundbreaking 2016 study on immigration directed by Cris Beauchemin, Christelle Hamel et Patrick Simon, scholars turned accusations of communautarisme (communitarianism, or loyalty to a single ethnic or cultural community) on its head, showing that it is in fact white people in France who are least likely to live near those outside their own racial group—not, as many assert, Muslim immigrants.

France’s political culture is based on a set of contradictions that remain at odds with an increasingly radicalized Muslim minority marginalized by secularism itself. In a country where it is still illegal to ask someone their race, making the gathering of statistics based on race and ethnicity nearly impossible, laïcité has continued to be mobilized by the state as a smokescreen for white, Catholic, heterosexual, and culturally European priorities.

French citizens of color have challenged this mirage of Republican neutrality as far back as the Haitian Revolution, calling for a laïcité that recognizes difference, creates space for its expression, and imagines a Republic that equally values all citizens’ lives. Ultimately, it must be their voices, not the staid values perpetuated by ghosts of empire, that drive justice and reconciliation for a French public beset by cruel acts of terror.

Hannah Leffingwell is a Ph.D. candidate in history and French Studies at New York University