French minister in unholy row over morality classes
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France’s education minister Vincent Peillon has called for “secular morality” classes to be introduced in schools, leading to a stinging accusation from his predecessor that his announcement echoes an appeal by disgraced Vichy leader Marshal Pétain.
France’s Education Minister Vincent Peillon was embroiled in an unholy row on Tuesday over the matter of “secular morality” in state schools.
Peillon’s announcement that he wants the subject to be taught in schools from 2013 has been criticised by his predecessor who accused him of harking back to a dark period of the country’s history.
Luc Chatel, the rightwing education minister in former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP government, said Peillon’s call for “secular morality” echoed the words of Marshal Pétain, who led the Nazi-allied regime, known as Vichy France, during World War II.
After France fell to Germany, Pétain vowed to rid the country of its “moral decadence”.
Describing Peillon’s words as “frightening”, Chatel said that seeking the “intellectual and moral reeducation” of France’s young people echoed “word for word the call of Marshal Pétain on June 25, 1940”.
His attack on Peillon may need to be taken with a pinch of salt given the fact that he himself, back in 2011, announced the introduction of morality classes for primary school children.
Children need to be taught how to ‘live together’
Referencing Vichy to slur rivals has been a common trait in French politics over the years, as is the debate surrounding the country’s deep-rooted secular values, known as laïcité in French.
Peillon’s latest bid to introduce a secular moral code for France’s youngsters is aimed, he says, at helping them “live together”.
The word laïcité, roughly translated as secularism, has no exact equivalent in English. It refers to a core principle of the French Republic, which had its origins in the French Revolution and was consecrated by a 1905 law separating church and state. The law protects the right to freedom of worship, but rules that religion should play no role in government or public institutions, particularly state schools. The principle of laïcité enjoys broad backing across France’s political spectrum and is passionately defended when the position of religion in French society arises. In 2004 a controversial law was passed banning the wearing of religious symbols, including muslim veils, in schools. This led some to portray France’s reinforement of laïcité simply as an attack on the influence of Islam in the country. Many Muslims in France supported the law however.
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Peillon said there were certain core values of the republic that he wanted children to learn and understand.
According to Peillon, secular morality is to “understand what is right and to distinguish good from evil. It is also about knowing your duties as much as your rights - and above all it's about values,” Peillon said.
“Secularism is not about simple tolerance, it’s not about ‘anything goes’. It is a set of values that we have to share,” he added. “To be shared, these values need to be taught and learned and we need to rebuild them among France’s children.”
Teaching French children Republican values will not require them to salute the tricolour flag, Peillon says, but he is in favour of them learning the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.
His proposal, which will be formulated over the coming months, has received a rather lukewarm reception among France’s legion of teachers.
“Children need to express themselves”
For primary school teacher Daniel Labaquere, who represents the union SNUipp, there are better ways of educating children than teaching strict moral codes.
“In France we talk a lot about values like liberté, egalité and fraternité,” Labaquere told FRANCE 24. “But these values can be achieved by a school helping children to grow and develop their personalities and by allowing them to express themselves."
"It shouldn’t be done simply be writing a set of moral codes on the blackboard and forcing pupils to learn them off by heart.”
Philosopher and specialist in secularism, Henri Pena Ruiz is also concerned that teaching secular morality in schools may well undermine the fundamental principal of laïcité and the reasons why France chose to separate its church from the state.
“We can’t just replace Christian instruction with Republican instruction for there is no point just aping religious indoctrination with secularist indoctrination,” Ruiz told Le Journal du Dimanche.
Parent groups have also expressed reservations about schools taking on the task of teaching morality to pupils.
“This should not encroach upon the role of the parents,” warned Valérie Marty of the Federation of State School Parents (PEEP). “Researchers looking into this must clearly define the roles of each side.”
Peillon did however earn the backing of his president boss François Hollande this week.
Hollande had pledged to strenthen France’s strict secular values during his presidential campaign. He also vowed to make young people, and in particular schools, the focal point of his mandate. He has promised to create 60,000 jobs in education over the next five years.
“A good school,” Hollande said, is one that teaches “dignity, respect, consideration and personal reflection.”