Meeting a minister was to be the highlight of the event.
Ms. El Haïry, 32, the daughter of Muslim immigrants from Morocco and one of the youngest members of President Emmanuel Macron’s government, could have been the wildly successful older sister of many people there. But there were also sharp differences. Her family was well-to-do: Her father was a medical doctor who went to work in Africa, and her mother and stepfather owned a restaurant in Casablanca, Morocco.
Politically, she had espoused clear, conservative positions since at least her high school days, recalled classmates at the prestigious Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca, where she spent part of her adolescence. Unlike the teenagers she faced in Poitiers, Ms. El Haïry strongly embraced France’s lofty universalist ideals.
France, she said in an interview at her office in Paris, represented a “chance.”
“It doesn’t look at you by your religion, it doesn’t look at you by the color of your skin, it doesn’t look at you by your parents’ standing,” she said. “It gives you the chance to be a full citizen and to construct yourself in this pact.”
That was not how the teenagers saw it.
One of those who attended was Jawan Moukagni, now 16, the daughter of a white Frenchwoman and an immigrant man from a former French colony in Central Africa. For as long as she could remember, she had wanted to join the national gendarmerie, France’s military police.
She grew up as a practicing Catholic, but the many West African immigrants in her neighborhood in Poitiers sparked in her an interest in Islam.
Jawan saw things from both sides. At school, where France’s strict secularism forbids the wearing of any visible religious symbols, some of her teachers said nothing when she wore a cross. But when she saw Muslim friends wear a veil in public, she saw how many French people treated it as radioactive.