Excerpt:

It's the Friday before mid-term break at Tour Sainte, and there's a giddy mood in the yard as the children file out past Stéphane Thiébaut, the school principal. "Bonnes vacances," he calls out to the parents and teachers milling about in the spring sunshine.

Tour Sainte has some of the best views in Marseille, its hilltop perch giving a wide panorama of the city and the Mediterranean. Birds are singing from the trees in the yard, while the glare of the warm sun against the peach buildings accentuates the calm. 'We have built ourselves a little oasis of peace," Thiébaut remarks. He is referring to the school's location, in the middle of Marseille's northern suburbs, considered the poorest and toughest part of the city. The street that leads to the heavily fortified school gate is known as a spot for drug-deals; at a nearby underpass two people were shot dead in a gangland dispute last year.

Of the 800 pupils attending the three private Catholic schools on the Tour Sainte complex – a primary school, a lycée (secondary school) and a collège – about 30 per cent come from homes where both parents are unemployed. And yet it's not the socio-economic profile of its students that stands out, but their religion. In the lycée, 50 per cent of pupils are Muslim; in the collège, the proportion is closer to 80 per cent.


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