It would be strange to hear any wife of the president of France calling for the reintroduction of school uniforms but particularly Brigitte Macron.
Eyebrows were certainly raised when the incumbent première dame recently spoke in favour of a parliamentary bill forwarded by the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) to get youngsters dressing in exactly the same way.
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Napoleon Bonaparte made school uniforms compulsory
Such an idea goes against the thinking of generations of French educationalists, with many saying it harks back to a far more militaristic age, when even little children dressed as soldiers and sailors.
It was Napoleon Bonaparte who first made school uniforms compulsory in 1802 when France was expanding its empire around the world by force of arms.
Surprising support from ‘liberal’ Brigitte Macron
A belief in putting boys, girls and teenagers in uniform certainly defies Mrs Macron’s reputation for liberal thinking.
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She was famously a married teacher at the Providence lycée in Amiens when she began a racy relationship with a talented schoolboy actor called Emmanuel – one who has never worn a proper uniform in his life.
Deep friendship blossomed into an unlikely romance, and, despite the 24-year age gap, Mrs Macron divorced the father of her three children and started a new life with the young Manu.
Mrs Macron has admitted that the affair scandalised their conservative home city at the time, but she brushed the reactionary comments aside.
She considered herself a cool child of the 1960s – one happier letting her hair down and listening to the Rolling Stones than sermons by the Roman Catholic clergy who ultimately ran schools such as Providence, which was founded by Jesuit monks.
Is Mrs Macron joining ‘curmudgeonly bores’?
The Macrons wed and now appear content with their life together at the Elysée Palace, but it still sounded like Mrs Macron, who turns 70 in April, was finally joining forces with curmudgeonly bores.
In the words of one MP who opposed the uniform bill: “Leave young people alone, they already have enough problems. They don’t need the stupidity of the RN.”
In turn, Mrs Macron claimed a school uniform “erases differences, it saves time”.
She recalled her own schooldays, when she was educated by nuns and mainly wore navy-blue skirts and sweaters for up to 15 years, adding:
“It’s time-consuming to choose what to wear in the morning, and costs money to buy brands. So, I’m in favour of school uniforms, but if it’s a simple outfit – and not too drab.”
‘Mould citizens who won’t challenge the status quo’
Such a view – and especially the reference to erasing differences – actually broadly fits into the overall mission of France’s education system.
One of its principal purposes is to mould law-abiding citizens who won’t challenge the status quo.
A major problem with this is that creativity is stifled, along with the potential for young talent to flourish.
‘Prejudice partly motivated the uniform bill’
In a more sinister vein, a uniform is an easy way of trying to stop children from ethnic and religious minorities turning up in anything that Marine Le Pen or her father Jean-Marie, founder of the RN, might disapprove of.
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The party is a notoriously anti-Muslim one that regularly manipulates French secularism to its own ends.
There is no doubt that prejudice would have partly motivated their uniform bill.
This was one of many reasons that, despite Mrs Macron’s intervention, it was finally rejected by the National Assembly.
‘School uniforms do not erase social or wealth differences’
At least children wearing their own clothes to school is an honourable exception to the French republican emphasis on uniformity.
Contrary to what Mrs Macron claims, a uniform does not erase superficial differences – children can appear just as poor in a makeshift one as they can in any other clothes.
It certainly comes nowhere close to helping to erase any significant differences – ones concerning wealth, social status, or potential life chances – so as to create equality.
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