French families defend home-schooling, under threat in debate on separatism
A special parliamentary commission will on Monday debate the controversial ‘separatism’ bill aimed at strengthening republican values in response to a wave of terror attacks. But the bill also contains an article on home-schooling which families say will deprive them of the right to choose how they educate their children. Many concerned parents were out on the streets in Paris on Sunday in protest.
A couple of hundred parents and children marched from the Panthéon to the Senate on Sunday to defend their right to continue educating their children at home.
Accompanied by Pink Floyd’s “We don’t need no education” children waved a large "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" banner. Slogans read “Macron, leave us to play outside” and “Let us remain free to choose”. Many wore masks bearing the message "No to obligatory school”.
Children took to the podium alongside adults. A small boy, microphone in hand, who proclaimed he would “never go to school” was roundly applauded.
🇫🇷 “Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!”— alison hird (@alisonsarahird) January 17, 2021
Parents and kids march towards Senate to protest Macron’s proposed #separatism law which threatens to end #homeschooling in France@LED_A_ #2021sansarticle21 #TouchePasMonIEF pic.twitter.com/doU6Q5mA5P
Attending school is not compulsory in France, but providing instruction is. That can be done anywhere and around 50,000 children are currently educated at home. The system is regulated with annual checks by both the ministry of education and local town halls.
But home-schooling families (IEF as it’s known in France) feel that right is now threatened by Article 21 of the proposed bill on separatism.
In its original form, the legislation sought to ban home-schooling altogether, except for medical reasons, as from September 2021. The justification is that some children are being kept out of school so that they can be taught principles which don’t conform to the laws of the republic. The home-schooling system, the government says, is facilitating radicalisation and the spread of Islamism.
President Emmanuel Macron appeared to be particularly attached to this part of the bill. On 2 October he gave a speech on fighting Islamist separatism saying: “I have taken a decision, probably one of the most radical since the laws of 1882 and those ensuring co-education between boys and girls in 1969.”
“We’ve been under attack since 2 October,” said Segolène Hartz, a mother of three home-schooled children who spoke at Sunday's gathering. “But we’re here to defend our fundamental right to educate our children how we see fit, as laid out in Article 26.3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
No clue about children
“Macron doesn’t understand anything about children or childhood, it’s totally abstract for him,” said Marc-Olivier Bernard, a company director who home-schooled his two children through to secondary level.
“He sees that there are a few problems with a very small minority of families and decides to ban this fundamental right. It's both incomprehensible and unjustified.”
In fairness, a total ban now looks unlikely and the section of the bill in question has been watered down following a legal opinion by France's Council of State.
The suppression of home-schooling "is not supported by reliable and documented evidence on the reasons, conditions and results of the practice of teaching within the family," the Council of State decided. "In particular it has not been established that the parents’ motives are significantly related to a desire for social separatism or a challenge to the values of the Republic.”
IEF families are leaving nothing to chance, however, and want Article 21 dropped altogether. More than 125,000 people have signed a petition to that effect.
“Macron and the government want to move from the current system of declaring you’re home-schooling to a system where you have to obtain authorisation," said Hartz. "We don’t agree. It’s unpleasant to have to justify yourself like that. We want Article 21 removed."
Home-schooling and extremism
Opponents of Article 21 argue the proposed law won’t be effective in fighting extremism anyway, as families who are off the grid will remain so.
“Banning home-schooling won’t mean these people come back into a legal framework,” said Hartz. “They already get round the law as it is, so there’s no reason they should change their ways, even if home-schooling is banned.”
Hartz cited a recent meeting with Lucile Rolland, head of France's territorial intelligence service.
“Rolland told us there was no data establishing a link between home-schooling families and radicalisation, and that the reasons that push families to home-school are not, or very rarely, motivated by religious or sectarian questions.”
IEF collectives have been lobbying hard in recent months and have obtained the support of a lengthy list of MPs and senators, largely from the right-wing Republicans, but also from the ruling LREM party. Former LREM MP Cédric Villani spoke in favour of home-schooling during Sunday’s march.
Aujourd'hui, aux côtés des parents et des enfants, pour défendre le maintien de la liberté d'instruire en famille et demander le retrait de l’article 21 du #PJLSéparatisme ! En faire une exception, revient à la supprimer. Plein soutien à l'#IEF pic.twitter.com/xgLNgXHzq2— Cédric Villani (@VillaniCedric) January 17, 2021
Marc-Olivier Bernard is convinced French people are concerned about defending their freedom.
“Some loss of freedom may be justified because of the current health crisis, but wanting to suppress the freedom to choose like that and with so little justification is intolerable,” Bernard said. “The issue of diminished freedom is becoming a major question in France.”
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