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French far-right election candidate relaunches school uniform debate

Eric Zemmour said they were needed as part of a ‘return to excellence’. We look at the history of school uniforms in France

In France, uniforms are now mostly found in private schools Pic: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Far-right Reconquête! presidential candidate Eric Zemmour advocated for the return of the uniforms in state schools during a press conference yesterday (January 10). 

He put forward the proposal as he outlined ideas from his educational programme, which he said aimed to fight against “the diffusion of ideology” [without more detail of what he meant] and for a “return to excellence.” 

His other ideas include a test at the end of primary school to evaluate whether a pupil has gained the basic knowledge needed to allow them to move on to secondary school. 

He also believes that less academic children should be directed towards apprenticeships rather than more school, as early as age 14.

He is not the first presidential candidate to suggest pupils should wear uniforms.

The Connexion looked at the history of French ideas toward school uniforms which, as often associated with tradition, discipline and an egalitarian ideal by conservatives, are one of the regular talking-points of presidential election campaigns. 

Uniforms in French schools were never made mandatory by the state but were rather adopted by some schools to stand out from competitors, French education historian Claude Lelièvre told The Connexion. However they were common until the second part of the 20th century.

French state schools now allow students to dress freely and mostly abandoned school uniforms in around the 1960s along with other former traditions like prize-giving ceremonies, according to Mr Lelièvre.

Private schools in France: many still follow the national curriculum

The older tradition can be seen, for example, in Sempé’s Petit Nicolas cartoons, from the 1950s and 1960s, in which all the pupils wear uniforms.

Uniforms are though still accepted within some private schools and some military or other highly selective schools. 

Private schools teach some 938,000 pupils in the primary sector and 1,208,000 in secondary, according to the National Education Ministry. Among them, there is a distinction between the majority which are under a contract with the state and those with no contract.

The former are required to follow a national curriculum and fees are low as only the additional lessons are charged. Schools with no contract are more expensive as they do not attract state funding and have more freedom to teach what they wish. 

Le Monde reported that an ‘old-fashioned' education, including uniforms and raising the flag, is part of the appeal to parents at certain sans contrat schools. Other reasons for choosing them include a particular religious ethos, or a particular style of education, such as Montessori and Freinet schools and international schools..

“A uniform enhances cohesion spirit, it is a strong identity factor, erases social differences and helps pupils understand there is a difference between school time and home life,” said Agnès Chaumont, 55,  the director of the private (under contract) Le Miséricorde school in Metz, Grand Est.

She imposed uniforms for pre-school children in 2018 and extended it to the CM1 class, the second year of elementary school. She said she is considering another extension to the CM2 class, the year prior to secondary school, in 2023. 

“The endorsement was massive from both students and parents,” she said.

Le Pen family has also proposed uniforms in the past

In 2017, then Les Republicains candidate François Fillon proposed a single and specific school outfit, much like the Le Pen family, successive leaders of the party then known as Front (now ‘Rassemblement’) National.

Several members of Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche party have also expressed favorable views toward uniforms over the last years, arguing that it is egalitarian.

“The uniform has always been used to symbolise a sense of membership. It is not a panacea but rather a tool to erase social, ethnic and religious differences,” said Serge Dassault, a French engineer and politician, in an amendment to a 2013 bill.

However, Mr Lelièvre strongly opposes the egalitarian credo of conservative politicians.

“There is an obvious contradiction between politicians championing equality who are against the uniforms while those favouring it want to select students,” he said.

“What is lurking is the return to a form of military authority,” he added.

Read more

Changes for the new school year in France 

French education: Alternative schools still lag in France

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