Old Time Religion in the French Manner


Published: September 5, 2012

Old Time Religion, in the French Manner
frenchclassHulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbi

With the start of the school year, the nation has quite suddenly been pulled into a debate over the role and responsibilities of the public schools. Should they limit themselves to teaching skills and broadcasting knowledge? Or must they also furnish the foundations of morality — the ethical groundwork that will allow students to make sense of the world?

Oddly, the debate has sprung up not in the United States, but in France. Even odder, just as they would be in the United States, the opponents in France are secular humanists and religious conservatives. Oddest of all, it is the secularists who are pushing for the old time religion of moral instruction, while the faithful are more than a bit dubious.

In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Vincent Peillon, the Socialist government’s Minister of National Education, called for the revival of la morale laïque, or secular morality, in primary schools. This concept, Peillon explained, means teaching students to distinguish between justice and injustice, and good and evil.

But he quickly disabused those American observers who wondered if he was channeling William Bennett, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. French schools, he declared, must “inculcate the notions of universal morality, founded on the ideas of humanity and reason … . The capacity to reason and criticize, to doubt, must be learned at school. France’s recovery is not only material, but also intellectual and moral.”

Like écoliers bursting out of the school door at recess, politicians and commentators fell over one another in their reactions to Peillon’s remarks. The minister of education under Nicolas Sarkozy, Luc Chatel, viciously tweeted that Peillon had repeated the notorious chestnut from Philippe Pétain, the ruler of Vichy France, who called for a “redressement moral” in 1940. (It happened to be in the same speech in which Pétain announced France’s surrender to Nazi Germany.) Other conservative politicians denounced the proposal as an ideological Trojan Horse, while Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right Front National applauded: “Secular morality is morality that obviously derives from our Christian morality. So much the better if it is taught.”

No less obviously, Le Pen consulted neither French Jews nor French Muslims about “our”— i.e., France’s — Christian morality.

Peillon had scarcely regained his feet when a second herd of critics, issuing from cathedrals and churches, stampeded his way. The Catholic thinker Bertrand Vergely hailed the reintroduction of a single code of morality into the school system, but wondered if the Socialists — “who have devoted the last 40 years to the destruction of the meaning and sense of morality” — were best equipped to undertake the task.

Similarly, the editor of France Catholique welcomed Peillon’s remarks, but asked if a consensus was possible. “Will we teach our children,” he asked, “that the right to be different implies the acceptance of same-sex marriage?”

Some Socialists, in fact, were also leery about a government, even their own, defining one and just one code of moral values for France’s school children. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, expressed misgivings about an “official” set of morals being taught in the schools. His doubts make him and the French Catholic hierarchy strange bedfellows: an openly gay politician who supports same-sex marriage, Delanoë, though he clearly has a different moral compass from the Catholics, shares their concern about the state affirming a single magnetic “north” for one and all.

For the moment, dissension and doubts over Peillon’s defense of secular morality are the only traits that seem to be universal. If nothing more comes of this affair, it will be a pity, for it touches on a vital issue for the future of the French Republic. Among the “republican” values Peillon deemed universal are knowledge, devotion and solidarity. Could they be any more relevant today, he rightly asked, when society is awash in “the values of money, economic competition and selfishness”?

Nevertheless, it is impossible to overlook the great differences between today and the late 19th century when la morale laïque was first proclaimed. When public education became a cornerstone of the fledging Third Republic, France had recovered with dizzying speed from its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Though dramatic economic disparities existed, as did competing interpretations of the nation’s revolutionary heritage, France surged with optimism. Whether reflected in the World Exposition of 1889 (which gave the Eiffel Tower to the world) or the triumph of justice in the Dreyfus Affair a few years later, France was on a roll.

Nothing seems farther from the truth today. With three million unemployed and economic growth near zero, caught between the domestic need to spur demand and a European imperative to cut its deficit, France — now home to some five million Muslims whose place in the nation is endlessly debated — seems largely impotent to inflect its destiny. In a recent poll, nearly two out of three respondents declared they are pessimistic about the future. Indeed, at the very moment Peillon announced his project, his school system was grappling with the cut of 13,000 teaching and staff positions made by the previous government.

Hardly the moment, it seems, to hold a national debate over the teaching of secular morality. Or is it? Clearly, France needs a citizenry armed with the skills, languages and knowledge to compete successfully in a radically changed world from their 19th century ancestors. But as the historian Jean Baubérot argues, these students also need something else. The teachers of the Third Republic helped their students, he notes, to reflect on the balance between rights and duties, as well as the need to respect certain principles essential for a dynamic democracy. Their descendants should expect nothing less of their students or of themselves.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.

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