The suspension of a primary school head for allegedly inciting racial hatred has highlighted fears among teachers' and parents' representatives of infiltration into schools by the extreme-right party, the Front national (FN).
Georges Escaffit, principal of the Frederic-Bazille primary school in Agde in the south of France, and a FN councillor in the neighbouring town of Beziers, has been suspended for four months by the inspector of the Herault academie (education authority) following parents' protests concerning racist lessons he allegedly gave to a class of nine-year-olds.
Most recently, these included an exercise based on the murder in Marseilles in September of a French schoolboy by a teenager of North African origin. Beforehand, in a game, he had asked pupils to find their names on a calendar marking saints' days. Three children from foreign families were singled out because their names were not included.
Parents had been complaining about Escaffit's behaviour for several years, accusing him of confusing propaganda with education and of verbal and physical violence against some pupils. Following representations by parents and teachers to the academie and an inquiry, he was suspended this month pending investigations.
Meanwhile, the teaching unions have been reacting against activities of the FN. The FSU (Federation syndicale unitaire) has issued a warning to all schools about "the danger that the FN poses today and, more generally, the dissemination of extreme right-wing ideas. Discrimination, xenophobia, racism, calls to hatred and exclusion are directly opposed to the values on which education is founded".
The FN, says the FSU, is increasingly picking on immigrants and their children as scapegoats for the serious economic, social and moral situation in which the country finds itself. The FSU also claims rising numbers of teachers are finding themselves threatened in their professional work.
The FN is already active in such sectors as the police, the transport systems of Paris and other major cities and the prison service, and members are enrolling on council tenants' committees. Now, says the FSU, it is infiltrating schools' administrative councils and other organisations. While so far unsuccessful in fielding candidates for professional elections in the education system, it is aiming to set up a parents' association and a teachers' union through its Mouvement pour une education nationale (MEN - an acronym also identifying the Ministry of Education, which is considering legal action to prevent the Front using it).
Quoting from FN material, the FSU document outlines its policy to separate public education from the state to create "autonomous establishments, free to manage themselves and to choose their pupils". And the FN advocates a quota of immigrant children for each school "to allow young French children to follow a normal education".
The Syndicat des enseignants, the major union affiliated to the Federation d'enseignement nat-ionale (FEN) has also issued a warning letter and is organising meetings and debates in Toulon, Marignane and Orange, where the Front controls the town councils.
Examples of FN national policy in action include the Orange town library, where acquisitions of books considered "too cosmopolitan", written by authors deemed too left wing or covering such issues as the second world war or racism, have been halted. Since September, claims the FSU, nearly all the books acquired have been written by FN officials.
At Marignane, the mayor has cancelled the provision of alternative school lunches previously supplied for Muslim and Jewish pupils when pork was on the menu. Apparently contradicting a State Council ruling allowing Jewish children to miss school on Saturday mornings, the Marseilles civil court dismissed a complaint from eight families against the mayor's decision.