Thousands of French people have signed up to help promote “the values of the republic” in the country’s schools, after two waves of terrorist attacks in the country last year.
The “National Education Citizen Reserve” will place people from all walks of life in schools, in order to help promote principles of secularism and citizenship, ministers said.
Schools have been placed at the centre of France’s fight against the rise of Islamic extremism. The volunteer project is part of a drive to tackle extremism through education, launched last year, which will also see candidates for teacher training assessed on their ability to teach the principles of liberté, égalité and fraternité.
The move echoes recent steps in England to force schools to promote “British values” following the Trojan Horse scandal, an alleged plot by hardline Islamists to take over a number of Birmingham schools.
Education and schools were the focus of national hand-wringing over radicalisation in France following the Charlie Hebdo attacks; concerns were heightened after media reports of pupils failing to respect a silence held across the country for the victims.
But commentators have said that a drive to promote “the values of the republic” will not address the root of the problem – the poverty and educational inequality experienced by large numbers of French children, often those with immigrant backgrounds.
There are also concerns that nobody has properly defined “French values” – with both the government and the increasingly popular National Front seeking to claim them.
The strict secularity of the education system in France has come in for criticism in recent years, with accusations that Islamic students and their families are being alienated.
A number of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, as well as the Paris attacks in November, were French-born Muslims.
Stories of schools banning Muslim mothers wearing headscarves from helping on school trips, and local mayors refusing to offer halal alternatives to pork in school canteens have also created tensions.
But rather than making more allowances for religious customs and observances, the French government has instead continued to maintain its policy of seeking to unite the country under secularism. Other measures that have been announced by ministers include on-site training for 300,000 teachers in secularity, and moral and civic education.
Guidance for teachers
Teaching resources have also been launched this month to help staff examine the historical and philosophical basis of France, which takes great pride in “laïcité” – the absence of religion or religious symbols – in its schools.
One set of resources – backed by Dessinez, Créez, Liberté (Draw, Create, Freedom), a charity set up by Charlie Hebdo staff in the aftermath of the attack – helps teach the principle of free expression through drawing.
Last week, French education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Moroccan-born Muslim, used a six-minute new year address to educational establishments, broadcast on the education ministry website, to underline the importance of the latest measures.
Filmed in front of the French and European flags, she said: “Rarely will so much have been done in so little time to promote republican values in school. But I am conscious of the extent of what is left for us to accomplish.”
She added: “Today, more than ever, I ask French men and women to unite around our schools and those who bring them alive.
“If our hearts are heavy, if our souls are marked, we can also draw, in courage, in engagement, in togetherness, a great strength. A real hope.”
Addressing parents, she said: “We will not let a terrorist organisation destroy what our republic has been building for over a century: our schools. They look to divide us, but we will respond with union.”
But observers of France’s education system have dismissed the drive to teach French values as “a bit of a joke”. Peter Gumbel, author of four books on French education, including French School Without Tears, an exploration of the system’s punitive approach, said: “You can’t go into schools and just say ‘France is great’, you have to tackle inequality. It won’t work until you fix the system where kids in deprived areas drop out at an alarming rate. These children are second-, third- and fourth-generation immigrants and they are the ones most vulnerable to being radicalised by jihadis.”
A key problem is a recruitment system that sends the least experienced teachers to the most difficult schools in the poorest areas, he said. “Nobody is really defining what the ‘republican values’ are. It’s not going to work, it’s a bit of a joke,” Mr Gumbel added.
Terror attacks in Paris in 2015
7 January: two masked gunmen force their way into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, including five of its cartoonists. The magazine had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
9 January: siege at the Hypercacher Jewish supermarket, where an Islamist extremist kills four hostages.
13 November: gunmen and suicide bombers kill 130 and injure hundreds more in a series of attacks on bars, restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France sports venue.