The View From Here - France - What is the moral of this lesson, class?

5th October 2012 at 01:00

In his first "big idea" as French education minister, Vincent Peillon plans to restore the teaching of morality in class more than 40 years after its abolition. Introduced at the end of the 19th century, morale laique - the teaching of morality that is free of religious trappings - was dropped from the curriculum in 1968, the year of the Paris Spring, when students joined workers in revolt against the state.

But Mr Peillon, who used an interview with the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche to announce his intentions, is convinced pupils once again need guidance to "distinguish good from evil". The minister insisted he was talking not about a moral order, but about "knowing your duties as much as your rights". "Secularism is not about simple tolerance, it's not about 'anything goes'," he said. "It is a set of values that we have to share. To be shared, these values need to be taught and learned and we need to rebuild them among France's children."

To no great surprise, Mr Peillon's proposal has divided French opinion, among teachers and parents as well as politically. Figures of the Left inevitably tread delicate ground when suggesting that others be taught about morality, and this thought was not lost on Luc Chatel, education minister in Nicolas Sarkozy's previous conservative government. Invoking one of the most wounding analogies in French public life, Mr Chatel accused Mr Peillon of imitating the words of France's wartime collaborationist leader, Philippe Petain. He said that the new minister's pronouncements were a faithful, frightening echo of Petain's pledge, on the fall of France in 1940, to seek the "intellectual and moral re-education" of French youth.

Others, again scoring political points, wanted to know "which morality" Mr Peillon wished children to be taught and why it was necessary in any case. Even among the natural supporters of President Francois Hollande's regime - the teachers encouraged to believe education will be spared in his austerity programme - there is doubt.

Daniel Labaquere, from the SNUipp teaching union, told the France 24 television news channel that the vaunted republican values of liberte, egalite and fraternite could be instilled by personality development and allowing children to express themselves.

Some older French people do remember, often with affection, the daily homilies they were required to deliver to classmates before morale laique was removed from the timetable. One 1981 example is: "Let us be polite, obedient and respectful towards our parents. They make sacrifices to take care of us. Let's be grateful."

Amid the mixed response to Mr Peillon's idea, there is also a more cynical view. In a waspish profile of the minister, the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine cast doubt on his ability to implement grander reforms to correct academic inequality and boost teacher training. "Is it an accident," the writer asked, "if the minister seizes on a subject that is hackneyed but free: the return of morality at school?"

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