These days it seems that the whole of Britain is wracked by questions about national identity. But over in France, the government thinks it may have the answer.
The latest idea from French primary education is that children need to be made to sing the national anthem, La Marseillaise. The supposedly modern Mr Macron sees this as a necessary step in nation-building – and envisions it being sung by a chorus of pupils to not one but two flags, the French Tricolore, of course, and the star-spangled EU one, too. The irony that the anthem is actually a European war song, War Song for the Rhine Army, is lost on him.
And so, at a cost of 20 million euros, two hours a week of singing will be compulsory in all French primary schools from 2019 – to promote joy and social cohesion, as the government puts it in fine, Maoist language. The minister of culture, Françoise Nyssen, has explained that it is necessary for schools to “march on two feet”, one foot being effort, the other being pleasure, in order to provide each child with a vital, common cultural base. And the songs for the march? La Marseillaise and Ode to Joy, the latter being the official anthem of the European Union. The Ode, at least, has an inclusive feel, being the words of the German philosopher-poet Friedrich Schiller set to one of Beethoven's tunes, and proclaiming that "All creatures drink of joy/ At nature's breast". Yet, whether making young children sing the European song is really going to promote warm fellow-feeling remains to be seen.
Certainly, though, political entities are not merely defined by geography but by ritual also, and the shared singing of the national anthem to the national flag is one that has long appealed to politicians. Where economic and social forces create conflict, where ethnicity and individual aptitudes divide, here many find an appealing egalitarianism. “Everyone”, surely, can sing the national song and share in the symbolism.
And yet, flags and songs are symbols that divide as much as unite. In the US only recently, the flying of the Confederate Flag has been the topic of anguished discourse, seen by many as symbolising white supremacist ideology. Flashback to 1943, and in a historic court ruling known as "Barnette", the Supreme Court found that mandatory flag rituals actually violated the constitutional requirements of democratic self-government. Democracy requires free minds and is thus inconsistent with forms of schooling that “strangle the free mind at its source”, the judges warned. They ruled that the free speech clause of the First Amendment protected students from being made to salute flags or chant pledges of allegiance.
There are other issues, too. La Marseillaise, like the British national anthem, contains more than its fair share of bloody associations. One line, “may impure blood water our fields”, has been noted disapprovingly by critics who consider the anthem racist. Other verses include a blood-curdling warning that “ferocious soldiers” are coming to “cut the throats of your sons, your women”. Citizens are urged to take up arms and "Marchons! Marchons!"
That last exhortation reminds some, ever so gently, of the slogan of President Macron and the governing French political party: “En marche! En marche!" It could not possibly be considered disgraceful in France that all its children are to be chanting something so similar to the governing party's slogan. Could it?
Populist political initiatives
Ethical issues have two sides, otherwise they would have been resolved years ago. For schools, the problem remains of how to ensure that populist political initiatives to create shared citizenship are not be at the expense of embracing diversity.
In the US, courts notwithstanding, for years many children have had to salute the flag and recite the oath of allegiance every morning. The aim, supposedly, is to unify, yet it is inevitable that such exercises also exclude and exacerbate divisions. In France, for example, millions of children have family links to other countries including, of course, the UK. Are they supposed to renounce these links – or feel less “French” because of a failure to do so? Academics speak of governments imposing “societal cultures” and devaluing what they call, rather grandly, “differentiated citizenship”. They contrast the simplistic appeal of unity with celebrations of cultural diversity and philosophical values, such as equality of opportunity, that transcend nationalities.
At the turn of the Millennium, governments in both France and the UK decisively moved to introduce new programmes for citizenship in schools – ones aimed at reinforcing claimed national values of tolerance and democracy. In France, an overt aim was combating differences in search of a mythical unity, but the English approach, guided by the Crick Report of 1998, has also been criticised for downplaying social inclusion and for seeing diversity as an obstacle to the ideals of shared citizenship. At least, in the UK, music itself has always been seen primarily as an opportunity for individual expression.
Martin Cohen is visiting research fellow in philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire. He has taught in schools and colleges both in the UK and in France and is the author of numerous books including Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies (2015).