French children to receive intensive training in 'republican values' and respect for religions

From next September, all children and their parents will have to sign a 'Secularity Charter' which forbids racial or sexist behaviour

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French children are to receive intensive training in democratic values and respect for religions and the media in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and other terrorist attacks this month.

A ten point 250m euro plan was announced yesterday by the education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to train children from six to 18 in “republican values”  - and especially the separation of religion and state, which has been a jealously defended principle of French society for more than a century.

Pupils will be given new courses in the importance of democratic institutions and symbols. They will, for the first time in state schools, be taught about the differences, and similarities, between the principle religions.

They will be taught how to differentiate between objective news-gathering  and propaganda or conspiracy-theorising. Each school will be expected to start its own newspaper, radio station or news website.

Most of all,  intensive new civics lessons will try to explain why the principle of “secularity” – or separation of church and state enshrined in French law since 1905 -  should not be seen as an attack on religion but a guarantee of equal rights for all religions.

Each 9 December – the anniversary of the church and state law – will be celebrated in schools as “secularity day”.

The programme has been cobbled together to respond to a rash of disturbing incidents after the three days of terrorist bloodshed  which killed 17 people in Paris two weeks ago. Some Muslim teenagers disrupted a nationwide two minutes’ silence for victims. Other pupils insisted that the killing were “justified to defend the Prophet”. Others said that the terrorist attacks were actually the work of the United States or Israel.

The French news agency AFP summed up  the reaction to the two minute silence on one class in a poor multi-racial suburb of Paris as follows. “Why should we have to do it? You can't force me. They had it coming.”

From next September, all children and their parents will have to sign a “Secularity Charter” created two years ago which forbids racial or  sexist behaviour or disrespect for any religion or the “symbols of democracy”.  Pupils who break the rules will be ordered to do community work with charities like the Red Cross or their local equivalents.

All schools will be encouraged – as some already do – to hold regular ceremonies in which children salute the French flag and sing the national anthem, the Marseillaise.

All schools will be expected to hold annual “graduation ceremonies” or end of year events in which republican and democratic values are celebrated.

There will be a drive to train teachers  and other education professionals - including 1,000 by the end of this school year – in how to conduct the new classes and apply the new rules.

There will also be new remedial classes to help immigrant children to master French.

In a speech on Wednesday night foreshadowing yesterday’s announcements, President François Hollande said that in future: “Each time that … words are uttered that go against the fundamental values of the school and the Republic, action  will be taken.”

Introducing the details of the programme yesterday, Ms Vallaud-Belkacem – the first woman and the first muslim to hold the post of education minister – said schools were inevitably in the “front line” of the fight against intolerance and hatred.

“But schools are not solely responsible for the evils which afflict them,” Ms Vallaud-Belkacem said.  The new programme would therefore reach out to parents and encourage them to participate “at every stage” in the civic education of their children.

The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who was present at the announcement, repeated his controversial assertion earlier this week that France suffered from an “ethnic and social apartheid” because of the lack of contact beteen wealthier areas and poor, multi-racial suburbs. He said efforts should also be made to force more “social mixture” in schools.