Hollande weighs in on gay marriage school row
French President François Hollande voiced his support of Education Minister Vincent Peillon (photo, right) this weekend, after he wrote a controversial letter warning Catholic schools against discussing plans to legalise gay marriage with students.
French President François Hollande and other political heavyweights voiced their support of Education Minister Vincent Peillon over the weekend, after he wrote a controversial letter discouraging Catholic schools from discussing the debate on gay marriage in classrooms.
France’s government has said it plans to legalise same-sex marriage and adoption, sparking heated debate and widespread demonstrations both in favour and against the measure.
Peillon penned the letter after it was made public that Eric de Labarre, secretary-general of France’s Catholic school system, had sent a statement to the institution’s 8,300 heads of school in mid-December, urging them to discuss same-sex marriage and adoption with students.
“Every primary and secondary school should take the appropriate steps to ensure everyone has the freedom to make an informed decision over the choices the government is considering today,” Labarre said in the communiqué.
Peillon quickly reacted. In a letter, which was dated Friday, December 4, the education minister warned the Catholic school system against raising the issue with students.
“It doesn’t seem appropriate to bring the debate over equal marriage rights into schools,” he wrote. “I have the deepest respect for the Catholic school system. But, the institution, which is under contract with the state, must respect the principle that everyone has the right to a neutral and free thought… We must never forget that we are dealing with young people and that attempted suicides are five times higher among teenagers who realise they are homosexual than others.”
Schools new battleground for gay marriage debate
It is clear that regardless of Peillon’s feelings about its appropriateness, the debate over gay marriage has now become a school issue. His letter in response to Labarre’s statement quickly ruffled feathers, raising the question whether the government had overreached its authority by telling a private institution how it should handle the matter.
Christine Boutin, founder and head of France’s centre-right Christian Democrat Party, said she felt as though Peillon’s comments portrayed the Catholic school system in an unfair light.
“It’s as if private schools were unconcerned with the education or respect of a child,” Christine Boutin, founder and head of the centre-right Christian Democrat Party (PCD), said in an interview with the radio programme France Info.
Pointing to a recent visit government spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem made to a public school to speak about the fight against homophobia, Boutin criticised Hollande’s administration as hypocritical.
“So, according to the minister of education, there are two different standards: it is okay [to discuss the issue] in public schools but not in private ones.”
Labarre also responded to Peillon’s letter in an interview with French daily Le Figaro.
“To organise a debate is not a violation of free thought. On what grounds can we ban someone from expressing a diverging or dissident opinion? Catholic schools are defined by their relative autonomy, which is also one of their strengths,” Labarre said.
Peillon has just ‘done his job’
In the face of mounting criticism from some conservative and religious figures, several prominent French politicians, including President Hollande, have come to Peillon’s defence.
“Secularism is a Republican value,” Hollande told reporters on Saturday during a visit to France’s northern Normandy region. “We have to make sure that all ways of thinking are respected and that all religions can be practiced. But, we also have to [respect] the fact that we all live in the same place, and that the state, as well as both private and public educational institutions, adheres to a principle called neutrality.”
Jack Lang, who once served as both minister of culture and education minister, also threw his weight behind Peillon, saying has merely “done his job”.
“It’s not unusual for a minister to highlight, in one way or another, the importance of neutrality,” Lang told the French weekly, Journal du Dimanche. “As a French citizen, I would be overjoyed if the Catholic school system respected the rules Vincent Peillon has reminded them of.”