Behind the barricades

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Events in France have put the issue of citizenship and the right of young people to exercise it back into the limelight, says Henry Maitles

hat to make of the events in France? For some, it smacks of anarchy; for others there is a feeling that the failed labour law (which would have allowed employers to sack workers under the age of 26 without notice, reasons or compensation) was a neo-liberal step too far.

I was in Paris recently and the noticeable point regarding the protests was the youth of the participants. There has been a clear lead from university students (with some three-quarters of French universities occupied), but noticeable on the demonstrations now are large numbers of lycee (high school) banners and students; and indeed a significant number of these students were at lycees in the banlieues (the belts of poverty and deprivation that ring many French cities which erupted into violence last November).

The events by definition are highly political. The students in the universities had a strategy of linking up with the unions, the young unemployed and the high school students. This was vital for them as many newspapers ran stories claiming that the new law would be welcomed in the banlieues as it would give them jobs (even if with second class conditions).

As one of the student organisers told the Liberation newspaper: "The obvious route to widen the campaign was to link up with the school students, but we also went into the poor areas and appealed directly to the alienated youth."

Another said that "university students have taken the lead, but it is the lycees that have given the movement momentum". In a number of the high schools, some pupils turned up at 8am to call for a strike; according to one "the whole school came out. Even the teachers encouraged our strike - they are also very unhappy with the new law. We made a banner and marched down to the demonstration." Some members of the executive of the FSU teachers' union (with about 180,000 members) backed up the students and spoke at the demonstrations, both as union members and, of course, as parents.

I am not suggesting that all French adults and parents are happy that their young people were on the streets instead of being in school. But there was no hysteria about students taking political action in this way. Compare this to the effect there might be here if our young people decided to exercise their citizenship rights in this way.

We have an inkling from the anti-war protests at the time of the Iraq conflict. The Headteachers' Association of Scotland said it should be treated as truancy and, if possible, bursaries should be taken away (a kind of way of ensuring that only pupils from "rich" families could take part).

But we constantly talk about "responsible citizenship". Is this a responsible way to act? In a situation where, in western society, we are constantly told that young people are only interested in consumerism, that they are apathetic and disinterested in politics, don't the young French people give a lie to that?

If there had not been a major outpouring of activity, are we in any doubt that the proposals would be law by now, instead of being abandoned? As regards our young people here, if there had not been the anti-war protests, would the politicians' stance have been as effectively challenged?

Bernard Crick, one of the foremost exponents of education for citizenship, was clear that if we want to encourage citizenship, critical thinking and political activism, we have to tolerate actions we (as adults, parents, teachers, politicians) might not necessarily agree with.

We can't expect pupils whom we are encouraging to think independently and become "confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens" (as outlined in A Curriculum for Excellence) to do nothing if governments do not seem to listen to legitimate concerns.

In this sense, the events in France are entirely understandable and the spirit of the events (as happened in 1968 when anti-war protests merged with social complaints and grievances in a potent mix) has a tendency not to respect borders. Neo-liberalism has not yet won the war.

Henry Maitles is head of the department of curricular studies at Strathclyde University's faculty of education.

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