4.5 million in France are illiterate, says new book

Many millions of people in France are thought to be illiterate

As many as 4.5 million people in France are illiterate, and unable to read basic instructions such as road signs, a newly-published book suggests.

Thierry Lepaon, former general secretary of workers’ union CGT, and now the interministerial representative for the French language, published the 160-page argument this week, entitled Let Us Dare to Defeat Illiteracy! (Osons vaincre l'illettrisme!, Le Robert).

The book’s claims come despite decades of national work against the problem, and the issue being declared a “grande cause nationale” in 2013.

Mr Lepaon argues that illiteracy is still widespread, with millions of people who were educated in France left unable to read road signs, restaurant menus, training manuals, instruction leaflets, post, or normal text messages.

Current figures from national statistics bureau Insee suggest that at least 7% of adults aged 18-65 and living in cities are illiterate - around 2.5 million people. But millions more are thought to live in rural areas, with up to 90% of those affected living away from urban towns.

Half of illiterate people are unable to work, Mr Lepaon says, and those who are employed may be in precarious situations, and live in fear of being “found out”.

People who struggle with reading may avoid detection in public and avoid situations that require reading, saying things like: “I’ve forgotten my glasses” or “I’ll just look at this later when I have more time”.

They may ask others to help them fill in forms, or develop robust strategies to memorise key objects, words or situations, to avoid detection.

Yet, Mr Lepaon explains, the battle is not lost.

He argues that aligning educational, professional, and social measures will help millions of people regain a functional level of literacy by 2025, and ensure that more people do not lose their ability to read in future.

Speaking to news source 20 Minutes, Hervé Fernandez, the director of national anti-illiteracy agency l’Agence Nationale de Lutte Contre l’Illettrisme, said: “Some of these people left school too early, or were raised in poverty, or have had serious problems that have damaged their knowledge. They are usually very embarrassed about it. This is an even bigger taboo than dyslexia.”

He added: “It is important however that we do not confuse illiteracy with other problems such as dyslexia, or non-French speakers or migrants who are learning the language.

“Illiterate people are those who have been educated in France, and who mostly speak French at home, but who do not have a solid enough level of reading, writing or numeracy to operate independently. These people are very afraid of being found out, which is why we need to highlight this problem and raise awareness of the issue.”

Mr Fernandez said that things had improved since 2013, especially in professional workplaces, largely thanks to the agency’s work in raising awareness, and the government’s recent efforts to improve early years education.

Mr Fernandez said: “There have been positive signs [such as] the priority given by the government to foundational skills in schools such as reading, writing and maths, and the possibility of repeating primary school years [until a good level is achieved].”

The government’s €15 billion “Plan Investissement Compétences”, announced late last year by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, is also part of the solution being offered to boost training, employment levels, and literary and mathematical ability among young people, unskilled workers, and the unemployed.

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