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Civic duty?

Matt Mahlen examines concepts such as "duty", "liberty" and "responsibility" and the relationship between the French military and the education system.

In France, the strong ties that bind the national education system and the army are as old as compulsory schooling itself. Both institutions served in the building of the nation.

Schools served as one of the coloniser's main means of acculturation, enrolling pupils in 1914 to send out letters to the front or to organise fund-raising fairs which helped to maintain hatred and the warlike frenzy of the time. The Second World War saw the Marshal Petain1 children trained to sing nationalist songs. As the sociologist Mona Ozouf so clearly underlines: in the Republican school the nation played the role that had been God's in the congregational schools. Today, if the conscription of the young is no longer compulsory, the professionalisation of the French armies—a policy agreed in 1997—has nevertheless introduced notable changes: in particular, citizenship education in schools now includes an insidious form of military instruction.

Allegiance to the state

Volunteering, equality, and humanitarianism, are all values which the military have made abundant use of in recent years when describing modern warfare. This has enabled the army to be present—and sometimes even invited to exhibit its “products”—in schools and universities today. In fact, the battle the army has been leading has been focused on an advertising campaign around the concept of citizenship, which naturally also interests schools as citizenship education was reintroduced in 1985 under the French socialist government of the day. Between the ages of 16 and 18, young men and women have to register with the military authorities and perform what is called a Day's Preparation for the “National Fighting Spirit” (in French JAPD), which consists of a day spent on promoting military careers. In the national programme for citizenship education, the section concerning the 16 year old age group includes a chapter entitled “Defence and Peace”, which seeks to define France's new responsibilities in a changing world in which the conception of national defence must necessarily evolve. However, the concept of citizenship seems to be reduced to the idea of belonging to a political community and of allegiance to the state. In fact, now that conscription has been abolished, citizenship education has offered the army a comfortable and efficient means of recruiting people for the professional army. In the last year of the Lycee, citizenship education is conceived as a means of making students think about the issues of peace and defence, within the contemporary context. The situation becomes more and more preoccupying when one considers that the “Prize for Civic Duty” is jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Education and the Society For the Legion of Honour, a military award. On the other hand, one remembers the case of Andre Pinon, the French school teacher who was banned from the national education system for having taught her students to sing a song by Boris Vian, entitled The Deserter on V-day. Following indignation and protest, she was finally reinstated on 13 July 1999, on the eve of the national day! Really, one wonders whether the development of a critical form of judgement can emerge from this type of citizen education. Unfortunately the understanding of political participation is limited to the study of notions such as power, representation, legitimacy, democracy, the Republic and defence. One is, however, surprised at not finding other terms such as responsibility, solidarity, equality, and justice.

The value of the military

The official texts defining citizenship education insist on the duty that each citizen owes the state which is in turn supposed to guarantee the respect of individual liberty and rights: those duties centring around voting, tax, defence and solidarity. Moreover, one finds that because of the end of the conscription system, it has become the schools' responsibility, in a sort of tandem with the army, to implement a critical reflection on the means of preserving the founding values of civilisation and liberty of the Republic. And when these same texts mention the duty to defend liberty and people's right to self-determination in the world, it is the importance of the army in these “humanitarian” interventions and the role and the use of the armed forces that are underlined.

Notes:
1 The "Marshal Petain's children" is an expression referring to the children's leagues which developed under the laws of Vichy. Children were trained to sing glory to France and to the collaborationists, racists, and anti-semites of the time. They were enrolled, gathered in work-camps and learnt the new trilogy of "Work, Family and Nation".
Translation by Gwen Cressman.

Matt Mahlen is an illustrator and artist. He lives in France and works with Le RIRe magazine.