As 12 million schoolchildren take their desks, France's new education minister Vincent Peillon has kicked up a storm by calling for 'secular morality' lessons in the classroom.
Despite a frosty reception from teachers and parents' groups, Peillon wants the subject to be introduced from 2013.
He intends to introduce a secular moral code, he says, to help France's young to learn to 'live together'.
There are certain core values of the republic that he wants children to learn and understand, he told the French paper Le Journal du Dimanche this week. Secular morality is about “understanding what is right and being able to distinguish good from evil. It is also about knowing your duties as much as your rights - and above all it's about values,” he continued.
“Secularism is not about simple tolerance, it’s not about ‘anything goes’. It is a set of values that we have to share. To be shared, these values need to be taught and learned and we need to rebuild them among France’s children.”
|Education minister Vincent Peillon|
However, teaching children Republican values will not require them to salute the French flag, he says, although he would like them to learn the French nation anthem, the Marseillaise.
Former education minister (under Sarkozy), Luc Chatel denounced Peillon's comments as "frightening", saying that they echoed “word for word the call of Marshal Pétain on June 25, 1940”. After France fell to Germany, Pétain, who headed the Nazi-allied Vichy regime during WW2, vowed to rid the country of its “moral decadence”.
However, Peillon has President Hollande's backing. “A good school,” says Hollande, who has pledged to strengthen Frances strict secular values, is one that teaches “dignity, respect, consideration and personal reflection.”
Parents' groups, however, have warned against schools taking on the task of teaching morality to pupils. "This should not encroach upon the role of the parents,” said Valérie Marty of the Federation of state school parents (PEEP).
And primary school teacher Daniel Labaquere, who represents the union SNUipp, argues that 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.”