Sex and the single market

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
British and French teenagers have different perspectives on morality - and other issues besides, as they discovered at a conference on European identity

Abigail loves Tom, who lives across the river. She wants to reach him, but Sinbad owns the only boat. Sinbad - fully exploiting his monopoly - demands sex as payment for rowing her over. Abigail asks her mother what she should do, but her mother says she must decide for herself.

Now it gets interestingI Abigail sleeps with Sinbad, who keeps his end of the deal and ferries her to Tom. But when she tells Tom what she has done in order to see him, he rejects her. Max, Tom's best friend, witnesses this and is so infuriated with Tom that he hits him. Abigail goes off with Max, her hero.

Who is the most guilty in this mini soap-opera? Is it Scheming Sinbad or Available Abigail, or maybe Macho Max, who betrays his friend? Who is least to blame? Touchy Tom or Muddled Mum?

The answers you give will depend to a large extent on whether you are male or female, and even on whether you have been brought up in Britain or France. So found two groups of sixth-formers - one mixed British group, the other an all-girl French group-when they debated the scenario at a workshop on European values and human rights. It was part of a conference, "European Identity: Myth or Reality?", held near Paris in February to commemorate the centenary of the Entente Cordiale.

The teenagers became impassioned over their clashing points of view. "There was a split on gender and culture," says citizenship consultant Amanda Brodala, who led the workshop. "The French women and English men agreed Abigail was most to blame and Tom least. All the English women agreed Sinbad was guiltiest, and the mother least."

Drawing on the issues raised by the story - power, conflict of interest, freedom of choice, morality - the students debated whether lessons could be learned for determining European values.

In another exercise, the two groups had to decide policies for newly arrived immigrants - with the realistic caveat that their budget was too small to introduce all their preferred measures. Here, the groups were largely in agreement. The priorities were to provide legal aid for new immigrants, free university education, language school support and free study tours of European countries, though they differed on other options.

"Both chose things about education and support for people coming in," said Ms Brodala.

One of the workshops compared the impact of the Euro 2004 football tournament with that of the European Parliament elections, both of which will be taking place in June. There were other workshops on designing the"ideal European school"; the role of the media in the construction of Europe; Europe in the neighbourhood; and Europe and the environment.

Differences in British and French traditions regarding integration and multiculturalism emerged when the conference debated France's newly introduced ban in schools of conspicuous religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves. How did it fit in with the European Convention on Human Rights? Some French students argued in favour of the prohibition to preserve secularity in education, but the British thought pupils should have the freedom to choose.

Some 70 students from 13 English and French schools attended the conference, organised by the British Council on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills, in partnership with the French Education Ministry. The aim was to discover what it means to young people to be citizens in a Europe where national boundaries have become less important, jobs increasingly mobile and qualifications need to be recognised internationally.

Like the other students, 17-year-old Michelle Iveson found it useful to mix with peers from another country. The second-year A-level student at Palmer's college in Grays, Essex, thought: "If we'd all been English, everybody would be agreeing, but we had a bit of conflict and it was good to get different views."

Harpreet Kaur Sandu, 17, an AS student at Greenford high school in Middlesex who participated in the footballEuropean Parliament workshop, said: "Without the French, we wouldn't have had any idea of their point of view. We had preconceived ideas, which were very different. They understood better than we did the workings of the European Parliament."

Angi Abdel-Samie, from Lycee Romain Rolland in Versailles, wished the conference had lasted longer: "We didn't have time to get to the bottom of things. It was a positive experience, but needed more time and should have included more nationalities." Britain should adopt the euro, she added, to demonstrate that it was European "in deeds, not just in thoughts".

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