What makes a good citizen? Or more specifically, what makes a good French citizen?
In theory, you need look no further than me - a recent graduate of France’s compulsory four days of formation civique, or civic training, designed to get immigrants to “better understand the values of the Republic and French society”.
As one of the many bureaucratic hoops that immigrants from outside the EU, EEA and Switzerland have to jump through, the civic training days teach you all about French culture, values, history and practical things like how the social security system and other state institutions work. Essentially, how to be a good resident in your new home.
The whole process is a good idea in principle. Even though I’ve visited France several times in the past and speak the language of Molière, it can be very disorientating to pitch up in a foreign land where you have a limited network and understanding of what it’s like to actually live there.
So in theory, the civic training is a bit of a lifeline as you drown amid a sea of forms to fill in, try in vain to work out which social benefits you might be entitled to, and generally attempt to establish yourself in the country.
In practice though, I found the days a bit hit and miss, especially from a UK perspective.
This is what happens at French civic training
Let’s start with one of the training’s main focuses: French and wider European values. Despite the current British government’s apparent desire to distance itself as much as possible from anything remotely European, the truth is we haven’t diverged from EU principles that much since we Brexited over two years ago.
When learning about the importance of freedom, democracy and equality, I couldn’t help but feel it was a bit redundant, because these are still clearly the hallmarks of modern British values too.
There’s no doubt that the UK has a huge way to go in some of these areas, be it women’s rights or stamping out institutional racism, but the same could be said for lots of EU countries. Some of which have far worse records than the UK in certain areas.
That’s not to say learning about European values isn’t necessary. It’s important that people arriving from countries which might not be as liberal when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights or freedom of religion for example, know that France is - by and large - a free and tolerant country.
But for someone who comes from a place which at its core has a very similar set of values and culture to France (as much as people on both sides of the Channel might hate to admit it), it doesn’t seem necessary.
Despite this, I quite enjoyed the more cultural aspects of my civic training days, including the mini history and geography lessons we had (there were no free samples of French cheese and wine to try, unfortunately).
Learning the literary giants and ‘integration homework’
Some of my classmates were surprised to find out that France isn’t limited to l’Hexagone we know and love, but also has territory in the Americas and Africa.
I was proud of my ability to reel off various modern and historical French figures who have shaped the country’s past and present, including literary giants like Voltaire and Victor Hugo (a big thanks to my French A Level teachers).
And I was marginally disappointed when we only briefly glanced at the lyrics to La Marseillaise rather than singing it all together - one of my party tricks is that I know the first verse off by heart (which might be a damning indictment of what I’m like at parties…).
As strange as it might sound, another positive about the training was the ‘homework’ they gave us at the end of one session - namely, setting ourselves three targets that would help us integrate into life in France. We then had to report back next session to share our experiences with the group and offer each other advice.
One of my targets was changing my UK driving licence to a French one. However, I soon found out that I was in the uniquely lucky situation that because it was issued before Brexit, it still counts as an EU licence for as long as it remains valid.
A nice side effect of the civic training was being able to meet other people in the same boat as me, from a variety of different places, including other European nations like Ukraine and various countries in Africa and the Middle East. I even exchanged numbers with a guy from Tunisia and have since met up with him for a drink, which is obviously handy when starting out in a new place.
Is the training worth it?
So what’s my verdict? All in all, there’s definitely value in European countries making their migrants go through some sort of civic training.
It’s a good idea to introduce foreigners to how local systems work, be it the numbers to call in an emergency, child benefit schemes or public healthcare. There’s lots I’d have totally missed had it not been for those four days.
In fact, learning about things like that is so useful that it’s a wonder other EU citizens don’t have to go through some sort of civic training when moving to France. Being part of the bloc, they are exempt.
But it’s not like the EU is even remotely uniform when it comes to the operations of the state.
Paradoxically though, it was these practical lessons that were also the least enjoyable - I much preferred hearing about France’s history, culture and values, possibly thanks to the comfort that exists in familiarity.
And because, ultimately, I’m still a sucker for the idyllic image of France, where the wine flows and the accordions are aplenty.
Or perhaps it’s because, despite recent political events, I know I’m still a good European citizen at heart.