Teaching morality in schools in France.

Teaching morality in schools in France.


The government is reintroducing the teaching of morality in schools, after it was abolished post 1968.

Schools will teach morality to children from the age of 5. The official programme is on the Ministry of Education website, and, strangely, the second document in a short list of supporting literature is the 1883 letter from the then Minister of Education, Jules Ferry, to school teachers, regarding the teaching of morality. The idea presumably is to pretend that there is republican continuity in the actions of the government. Jules Ferry is a respected figure as the founder of Republican Education, who wrenched schools from the grasp of the Catholic Church. The other continuity is in the assumption of a universal morality that everyone is able to find in his conscience; in 1883, that assumption relied on still present Christian belief; in 2015, it is just an assumption, supposed to be based on reason, i.e. anyone reasonable will agree there is a universal morality.

In fact, as the quotes below will show, present day teaching bears no relation to the 1883 letter, either in content or in intent. Unlike 1883, the 2015 programme treats the child as a lone individual, unconnected to a family or a community, except school and France, and the aim is to make him think, question his beliefs and give them up: “The pupil is encouraged to think, name things, listen to other points of view, defend his position, question his position, doubt, find out more, and be prepared to change his opinions.” The French text ends with ‘renoncer’ which I have translated as ‘be prepared to change his opinions’ but really means ‘give up’.

The 1883 letter says the opposite expressly:

“It goes without saying that the teacher will avoid as a bad deed anything, in his language or his attitude, which might hurt the children’s religious beliefs, anything that could trouble their spirit.”

That 1883 letter has content, and presents the child as being part of a family he or she must love, respect and help. The teacher must teach the child to love nature and God. The Ferry directive begins:

“Secular moral teaching is different from religious teaching but does not contradict it. The teacher does not take the place of the priest or the father; he joins his efforts to theirs in order to make of each child a good and honest man.”

“Later, when they have become citizens, [the children] may become divided by dogmatic opinions, but at least they will agree in practice to place the purpose of life as high as possible, to hate all that is base and vile, to admire all that is noble and generous, to have the same ready recognition of duty, to aspire to moral improvement, whatever the efforts it might cost, to feel united in this general cult of what is good, beautiful and true, cult which is a form, and not the least pure, of religious feeling.”

This feeling of something greater than yourself extends to nature: “To lead children upwards to a feeling of admiration for the universal order and to religious feeling by presenting to them great natural beauty”

Then from age 9 to 11:

The child is considered as first of all part of a family: he has duties to his parents and grand-parents: obedience, respect, love, gratitude; helping the parents in their work, bringing them comfort when they are ill; supporting them in their old age. Duties to brothers and sisters: love each other, the older ones to protect the younger ones, give a good example. Then the child at school has duties towards the teacher and his schoolmates. Finally the child has a duty to France, ‘in her greatness and her misery’.

Regarding material goods: avoid debt, do not have an excessive love of money and gain; work (do not waste your time, work is obligatory for all men, nobility of manual work.)

Then from age 11 to 13, the teacher will show pupils the difference between duty and self interest, even when they seem to be the same, because duty has an imperative and disinterested character.

And the distinction between written law and moral law: “the first is a minimum of rules that society imposes on pain of penalties, and the second imposes to everyone in the secret of his conscience a duty that no one can force him to accomplish, but which failure to accomplish would lead to a feeling of guilt towards himself and towards God.”


The methods to be used

Teaching morality in France today is very problematic, because the main value is freedom, and absolute personal choice; one build one’s life as one likes. You can’t limit people’s freedom by telling them what to do. Many teachers, imbued with multiculturalism and the cult of total personal freedom, think morality should not be a school subject. The deputy president of one of the main teaching unions said: ‘Values are not transmitted, like a virus or a vaccination, they are brought to life.’ (Meaning the teacher puts them into practice in the classroom. This is what morality in the class-room will often boil down to: school rules, like listening to others and taking turns speaking, which presumably teachers have always taught. )

This idea that values are not transmitted is central to government philosophy: ministers such as Vallaud-Belkacem the minister for education, strongly want pupils to be freed ‘from the determinism of social and territorial environment’, meaning they want them freed from the influence of their family and origins. The child is therefore supposed to consider himself as alone in the world. Not only will teachers introduce him to moral values, of which he would have no idea otherwise, but they will also teach him elementary hygiene, safety and nutrition, as if he was making his own way in the world. Pupils are assumed to have learned strictly nothing at home, not even to wash their hands. Teachers are supposed to become the main source of moral and practical influence.

Since they can’t be seen officially to take the place of the family, teachers will not tell the child anything, they will just set up discussions among pupils, and let values emerge, with the help of reasoning. They will lead discussions centred on an event, a text, a maxim, and this will be followed by ‘an interpretation, clarified and shared, then written down and memorised’. That means that one interpretation is arrived at, and the whole discussion was directed towards that interpretation; the teacher has to make sure the discussion leads where she wants it to. The debate is initiated and concluded by the teacher who therefore imposes the official view of the world, which is fine because it is benign, as we will see.

There has to be some content eventually for moral education; this content is a set of empty words.

Teachers will follow a list of themes for discussions, under four headings: introduction to moral notions (good and evil, truth and falsity, sanction and reparation, respect for rules, etc), respect for the self (dignity, hygiene, the right to intimacy, the image I project of myself as a human being), social life and the respect for persons (rights and duties, equality of sexes and of human beings, self control) and respect for the property of others and public property. These are given as headings, with no explanation or content.

To guide the discussion of these bald themes, there are principles, the principles of the Republic: dignity, liberty, equality, solidarity, secularism, justice, respect of persons, equality of men and women, tolerance, the absence of all forms of discrimination.

Some of these principles are completely vague and meaningless in themselves; Freedom is notoriously difficult to define: freedom from what? Freedom to do what? Interestingly the curriculum stresses the limits to freedom: ‘your freedom is limited by the rights of others’, ‘freedom, which is achieved through education, is fundamental to any democracy’ and education will ‘set the basis for a well understood exercise of individual freedom within society’. But how freedom is limited is problematical; the golden rule ‘do as you would be done by’ is a minimal guide, as it does not apply to the majority of actions, such as acts that impinge indirectly on society.

Equality is equally vague and problematic: in what respect are people equal? In the wages they can expect?   In the prestige they enjoy? In the houses they live in? In the gardens they have? The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen spelt out that equality was only equality of rights: ‘men are equal in rights, and inequality is there only to maintain the good order of society’; this means that aristocrats do not have extra rights by virtue of their aristocratic birth. The ‘equality’ of 1789, supposed to be the pillar of French society today, is in fact meaningless, when there are no aristocrats placed above the populace by right. Groups of people today enjoy extreme privilege, and at the same time defend ‘equality’ as sacred. As for dignity, solidarity and tolerance, they are ideals at best, or pious words in fact. Although dignity is an interesting value to promote, since crassness, as shown on television for example, is supposed to be a good thing.

The principles which have some content are not moral principles as such, which must be universally acceptable, but the dogma of people who happen to be in power at the moment: ‘equality of men and women’; this is as problematic as equality in general: equal in what respect? Does equality allow difference? Often it translates as ‘must be treated the same, the same things must be expected of both’; the same minister for education, Vallaud Belkacem, told little girls in the classroom at the time when gender theory was going to be part of the primary curriculum: ‘you too can play war’. ‘Absence of all forms of discrimination’ must be a joke if you are the child of an immigrant. The other modern dogma is laïcité or secularism, understood in this context as ‘freedom to think and to believe or not to believe,’ but which is popularly understood to mean that religion is only acceptable if it is entirely private and does not visibly influence your behaviour. This denies the very nature of religion, which is for a large part a guide to good behaviour. This right to be religious is explicitly denied in France, see cases of people who allow their religion to influence their behaviour (for example, Muslim women who understand modesty to mean covering your hair); they are not allowed to enter public places.

These are the themes and the general principles; the baffled teacher—history and geography teachers will be in charge initially, as they were in charge of civic education—will find that the actual curriculum covers mainly practical matters such as school rules, hygiene, healthy eating, road safety, internet safety, and knowing the symbols of the Republic. Later pupils will practise ‘identifying situations of discrimination contrary to the values of the Republic, liberty, equality, fraternity and (radical) secularism’. They will learn about human rights, the rule of law, and social customs. Pupils will learn to feel that they belong to their country, and that they are also citizens of the European Union; they will learn the symbols of the EU, its flag and hymn. That will form citizens who are ‘aware of the principles and rules that found our democracy’.


These are the texts offered to teachers to help them teach morality:

– a compilation of moral maxims,

– Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 20 november 1959

– International Convention of the Rights of the Child 1989

– French Constitution of 4 october 1958

– Speeches on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen by Castellane, Barnave and Malouet (1st August 1789)


The compilation of hundreds of moral maxims of the world through the ages does not add up to a morality of any sort. I will give as an example the four maxims which come under the heading of good and evil:

« Toute la morale est dans ce vieux proverbe : Qui mal veut, mal lui arrive. » All of morality is in this old proverb: who wants evil, evil will befall him.

Jean-Baptiste Say – Des hommes et de la société – 1817.

« Excuser le mal, c’est le multiplier. » Excusing evil means multiplying it.

Gustave Le Bon – Aphorismes du temps présent – 1913.

« C’est par les actions qu’on peut juger du bien. » It is through actions that you can judge what is good.

Térence – Héautontimorouménos –second century BC

« Le mal qu’on dit d’autrui ne produit que du mal. » The evil you say of others only produces evil.

Nicolas Boileau – Satire VII, Sur le genre satirique – 1663.

How these maxims are supposed to help teach pupils the difference between right and wrong is not clear.


That leaves ‘human rights’ as a guide to behaviour. But human rights cannot be a guide to behaviour.

Rights are a legal concept, and they can only be effective if there is a legal mechanism in place which can enforce the rights. You need to be able to have an answer to the question: who will enforce the right? How should my right as a human being be enforced?

Human rights in the abstract cannot exist except as ideals: there is no context and no person or body that can recognise an obligation towards all human beings in their quality as human beings.

Take the question of clean water. Do human beings have a right to clean water? They all have a need for clean water, but what would it mean to say they have a right to it? How would that right be enforced? Who do you appeal to?

The same questions could be asked about other basic things like a right to work, never mind the right to a happy childhood etc.

Declarations of universal rights are abstract and general, mere expressions of wish; pupils reading in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989:

“Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding,

Considering that the child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society, and brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity,” could be forgiven for thinking they were just reading pious words. Older children might be aware that the UN, far from being a source of moral guidance, is a body that also sponsors wars, using ‘human rights’ as an excuse to wreak destruction.

Human rights are accepted today as ‘a good thing’, an expression of idealistic feelings; but feelings are not rights. When universal rights were first mooted in France in 1789, the obvious objection that they would not apply to the majority was raised. Speeches at the Assembly questioned the wisdom of a declaration of the rights of man, when the fact of the matter was that inequality was recognised as the basis for an ordered society. A Third Estate (non noble) deputy made that point (Speeches on the declaration of the rights of man and the citizen by Castellane, Barnave and Malouet, 1st August 1789):

‘We have as our fellow citizens an immense multitude of men without property, who need for their subsistence regular work, a settled life and consistent protection, and who are sometimes irritated, not unreasonably, by the spectacle of luxury and opulence.


I do not conclude from this that this class of citizens does not have an equal right to freedom. Such a thought is far from me. Freedom should be like the sun, which shines for all. But I believe that in a great empire men placed by destiny in a dependent condition should be shown the just limits of natural freedom rather than its extension.’

The conclusion is straightforward and our Minister for education also aims to show pupils ‘the limits of natural freedom.’ But the whole passage contains a hint that those not in a dependent condition might have duties and obligations towards their fellowmen, since they need ‘regular work, a settled life and consistent protection’ and are ‘sometimes irritated, not unreasonably, by the spectacle of luxury and opulence.’ This is no more than a hint, a survival of feudal and Christian notions, to be rejected at once; it will be rejected also by the non-Christian left, as paternalistic. Hence left and right both reject the idea of obligation to your fellow man, and both constantly evoke the 1789 motto of ‘liberty and equality’, the right because it gives a justification and a revolutionary gloss to the imposition of individualism and the left because they like the Revolution and don’t look any further.


The idea of reintroducing morality on the curriculum was mooted in 2008, then in 2013, then made urgent after the Charlie Hebdo events of January 2015. The idea of reintroducing moral teaching came with the realisation that the perpetrators of recent attacks on French soldiers and journalists were French and had attended French schools. Further, pupils in 200 schools had refused to hold a minute’s silence for the victims of the attacks, saying ‘they were not Charlie’. In the panic induced by the events, schools were made to bear responsibility, and teachers were tasked with helping to prevent further outrages. The new programmes were introduced as a direct response to these events, and rushed through without textbooks or training for teachers.

The men who killed the Charlie Hebdo journalists belonged to the ‘immense multitude of men without property, who need for their subsistence regular work, a settled life and consistent protection’ and who furthermore see France participating in the destruction of fellow Muslim peoples in the Middle East. The idea you can calm their anger with pious words is absurd.

The new curriculum is an attack on religion, this time Islam as well as Catholicism. But it shows up the difficulties a society based on individualism and absolute freedom faces when trying to imagine a guide to behaviour, that is, a morality which involves recognition that we live in communities and are bound to depend on each other for our well-being. The best that the minister and her committee can come up with is that children should make their way in society without being disruptive: ‘exercise their freedom without infringing other people’s rights’. Putting yourself first, as long as you don’t infringe other people’s freedom, leaves the way open to actions that undermine families and communities. The trouble is that the minister and her committee don’t recognise that we need families and communities and that we depend on them for our happiness. Instead they explicitly deny that we need families and communities: for them, there is ideally nothing between the child and the state. This for them is not the deplorable result of sustained attacks on the family and communities, but a desirable state of affairs.