Teenagers taking part in a trial of a national service scheme have welcomed the discipline and aim of the project – despite concerns about its set-up.
Service National Universel (SNU) was a campaign promise of President Emmanuel Macron and is intended to “promote a sense of civic duty and national unity among French youth”.
Students who go through the course will be presented with a “citizen passport”.
They can choose to take additional courses after 16 if they wish - and, on passing, could be entitled to certain privileges, such as simplified application and lower costs for a driving licence.
Angélique Liguoro, 16, is taking part in the first experimental phase of SNU and thinks it is a great opportunity.
“A lot of young people today have no respect for others and I think SNU can change attitudes,” she told Connexion.
“The two weeks away in a centre helps because you meet lots of different kinds of people, and learn to be tolerant.
“It can give you self-confidence, because you learn to do things you did not know you were capable of doing, with people you did not know before.”
In June, a trial started in 13 departments with 2,000 teenagers who volunteered to take part in the first phase, staying in a centre for a fortnight.
Angélique said she volunteered because she wanted to learn first aid and self-defence, and because young people should learn to be public-spirited.
She stayed in a high school in Val-d’Oise with 120 other 15 and 16-year- olds, none of whom she knew.
“Some of my friends thought I was mad but I really learned a lot,” she said.
“We were all different, coming from a variety of class backgrounds and religions. I think I am open-minded but it still taught me a lot to mix in this way. I was happy to wear a uniform because it made us all equal. It also made me more independent, being away from home.
“The police came with their horses and dogs and we did a missing person exercise. There was a simulated road accident and a terrorist situation, where they let off bangers to make it realistic.”
She is planning to do her voluntary work in an SPA animal welfare charity. She is studying for a Bac Pro STAV in animal and plant production but this experience has given her new ideas for her future.
She wants to work with horses in the police force.
SNU has been controversial from the start, with criticism that it is obligatory, it will cost too much, the logistics of providing accommodation and transport for thousands of students will be complicated to organise, two weeks in a centre is too short, and it is too close in style to the former military service.
Former headteacher Bernard Hameau was chosen to be director of the SNU centre at Morbecque, Nord.
“I thought it was a real success in social cohesion, as the students grew very close in a short period of time,” he said. “However, it is likely to be very different when it is obligatory and we have some who really do not want to be with us.
“I found it enriching. It was not a preparation for military life but a chance to learn how to be a citizen and how every individual is part of society.
“We will have to change some elements. Four hours behind a desk to learn the highway code did not go down well. They do not want to find themselves back in the classroom.”
How Macron’s new ‘national service’ works
The government intends to make Service National Universel (SNU) obligatory for every teenager between the ages of 16 and 18, most likely for the 2022-23 school year.
Next year it will be available in every department, but limited to 40,000 students across France.
It will take place in the first year of high school with two parts.
The first includes a fortnight with 200 pupils in a centre not in the teenager’s own region.
Participants will wear uniforms and learn first-aid skills, visit cultural sites, take highway code lessons, do sport, and learn how public institutions are run.
The centres will be run by qualified instructors and members of the uniformed forces, such as the army and fire brigade.
The fortnight is intended to help students understand what it means to be a citizen of France – and they will start the day at 06.30 by singing the Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, and flying the French flag.
In the second part, each teenager will help out in a charity or public institution, dressed in their uniform, for a further two weeks at some time during the school year.
There will be an additional voluntary period when students can opt to spend three months helping out in an organisation related to the military, the police or the fire brigade, or that helps other people, is involved in the environment or heritage conservation or in education.