French MPs have begun examining a controversial measure in the “anti-separatism” bill which aims to crack down on Islamism. Article 21 would drastically limit home schooling, which the government says is used as a cover for radicalisation. But there’s little evidence to show the link between the 63,000 registered home-schooled children and extremism.
The proposed legislation would make it obligatory for all children aged 3-16 to attend school from September 2021. Families wanting to home school would have to request authorisation and, in some cases, there could be exceptions: for medical reasons, high-level sporting commitments, itinerant lifestyle or “in the best interests of the child”.
But the idea of “authorising” what amounts to a fundamental right in France to decide on how you educate your child has met with heavy opposition, and not just from home schooling families.
MPs have tabled some 500 amendments to the article and politicians from hard-right Marine Le Pen through to former LREM MP and mathematician Cédric Villani are opposed.
In an open letter published in daily newspaper Le Monde, Villani called for Article 21 to be dropped: “Home schooling mustn’t serve as a scapegoat in the fight against separatism,” he wrote.
The French Communist party is the only one backing the article outright.
Controversy over the right to home school comes as little surprise to education historian Claude Lelièvre: “We’re touching here on freedom of instruction, as enacted under Jules Ferry,” a reference to the man regarded as the father of the modern French school.
The Jules Ferry law of 1882 states that parents have a duty to provide their offspring with instruction, but it can be done in public or private schools, or at home.
“If there is sectarian drifting, we should fight it, but without removing the right to choose, which is given to everyone,” said lawyer Bernard Toulemonde, former inspector general with the board of education.
There is no doubt home schooling is on the increase in France. According to the ministry of education’s impact study, 25,000 children were registered as home schooled in 2016, and by November 2020 the numbers had shot up to 62,398.
The study refers to “an increase in family instruction as a form of ‘social separatism’ whether based on philosophical, religious or sociological reasons”.
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But the numeric increase doesn’t necessarily reflect an increased threat to the Republic or its principles.
“The figures are not comparable,” said Philippe Bongrand, a researcher on home schooling at Cergy Pontoise university.
A change in the law in July 2019 which lowered the age for compulsory instruction from six to three “explains the bulk of the increase in 2019,” he told Libération daily, with parents seeking alternatives to sending their toddlers into the rough and tumble of the classroom.
Bongrand’s studies also showed that families home school for limited periods. “In urban areas, in the case of more than half of children, home schooling lasts less than a year,” he said.
This suggests families are not necessarily rejecting the French school system outright but experimenting when faced with the likes of bullying, illness, the desire to travel round the world, or lockdown.
Lack of data
The government is sensitive to the issue of respecting liberty – a key principle in France’s liberté, égalité, fraternité motto. But it seems some freedoms are more important than others.
“The main freedom people have is to interact with other people. When we don’t have that, children simply turn wild. It’s an anthropological reality,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told the French parliament on 22 January.
But how many of France’s 63,000 home schooled kids are turning “wild” and becoming ‘socially separate’?
The impact study refers to “two illegal teaching establishments identified in Seine Saint Denis [France’s poorest department] in September 2020″. It mentions “associations welcoming children who were officially declared to be home schooled but were providing them with instruction. The teaching was at best empty, at worst indoctrination”.
But the study provides no figures on the proportion of home schooled kids who are being radicalised nor objective data which establishes a correlation between home schooling and Islamist radicalisation. France’s council of state expressed similar reservations over Article 21 in early December.
Many home-schooling families in Paris and other big cities have been protesting against Article 21 and lobbying MPs.
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Anne Belléard isn’t an activist but a former physics teacher who found home schooling more practical when she was travelling abroad with her civil servant husband. The kids seemed to thrive, she enjoyed it, and when she returned to France they continued.
“We do structured learning for one hour a day and the rest of the day is their projects, lots of crafts, games, cooking, going to the park or a bit of gardening on the balcony,” she explained sitting on her living room floor playing cards with Emeline, 6, and Arthur, 4.
Emeline attends an English-speaking school every Wednesday and meets children from the local primary school. A school inspector calls once a year to check the children are learning and sociable.
“We’re not separatist,” she laughs. “We’re fully in French society, I work on weekends, my husband works for the French government, we meet people, go shopping.”
As for teaching republican principles: “My children recognise the French and European flag, we see the equality, liberty, fraternity motto in public buildings. We don’t have a religion in our family but we see churches, people wearing kippas in the streets, mosques. We talk about it when the question arises.”
Checking for radicalisation
The Belléard family seems to pose little threat to republican principles, so which families do?
“We sometimes come across worrying cases, suggesting radicalisation may be going on,” said Philippe Bongrand. “It undoubtedly exists, but it’s extremely marginal. A tiny fraction of inspections result in a report warning of the risk of radicalisation.”
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The education ministry’s annual checks are designed to ensure that children are learning the fundamentals of knowledge and culture and to identify signs of radicalisation or drifting into groups classified in France as sects such as the Church of Scientology or Raëlians.
“If the first inspection is not judged satisfactory, there’s a second one,” Bongrand said. “That happens in seven percent of cases, which suggests that there are few situations considered to be seriously worrying.”
Inspectors work in teams of three and the annual sessions with families last just 45 minutes. Some of them are dissatisfied with the current system.
“Several of my colleagues find the system unsatisfactory,” one inspector working in two poor areas in the Paris region, and who preferred to keep her anonymity, told RFI.
“Sometimes we have concerns, but there’s no follow up. The teams change each year so we don’t see the same families twice. Some families don’t even show up.”
On the issue of radicalisation she admits she’s had “cases of men not wanting to shake my hand, but less than half the cases we inspect have showed signs of Islamism.
“Most of the families I see are people who’ve slipped down the social ladder: they’re lost, feel let down by the system and are wary of all French institutions.”
Her particular remit is to look out for children that have been taken out of school because their families have joined sects.
“At the moment we’re only thinking about Islamism but there’s a blind spot over the issues of sects and it’s dramatic. I’ve seen more children in class imprisoned by allegiance to sects than radicalised by Islamists. It’s an enormous problem where I work.”
She remains sceptical about whether the proposed legislation will achieve its goals. “People will find a way of getting around any new restrictions the law may introduce. We don’t need a law, we need to reform the system of controls and take action.”