French children returning to school this week after the summer break may notice a change in their classrooms.
From Monday (September 2), all classrooms in the country are required to display both the French and European Union flags. Supporters describe it as “an important step forward” for French education, but the move is not without criticism.
The national motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” must also appear, along with the words from the national anthem “La Marseillaise”.
The “tricolore” flag is already hung outside school and other public buildings in France. From now on its symbol, along with that of the EU's 12 gold stars, will have to appear in all school classrooms – both public and private – but not in universities.
Illustrations of the flags are acceptable and schools have been ordering specially designed posters. Costs will be borne by the French education ministry.
The new measure is one of several contained in a new education law. Adopted in July, it covers a range of issues from exam reform to teacher training.
The idea for displaying flags came not from President Emmanuel Macron’s government or even his “La République en Marche” (LREM), but from the right-wing party “Les Républicains” (LR).
It was put forward as an amendment to the then education bill as it passed through parliament last February, by an MP from the LR, Eric Ciotti. At first it did not include an obligation to include the European flag.
At first, the move was resisted by the education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. But following strong backing from other LR lawmakers, a compromise was passed – with the EU flag added.
Ideologically situated between Macron’s party – which has attracted support from the centre-right – and Marine Le Pen’s “Rassemblement National” on the hard right, “Les Républicains” have been trying to appeal to the nationalist right.
The inclusion of the new flags has been criticised by teachers, and by those on the political left as well as within the ruling LREM.
Teachers have highlighted practical difficulties, while the left-wing party “La France Insoumise” (France Unbowed) has attacked what it sees as a drift towards nationalism. “Schools are not (military) barracks,” one MP said.
The education minister – a former academic, education official and head of a prestigious business school – has come under fire from members of Macron’s party, who believe he is too close to the political right.
The obligation to display the French flag in schools is designed to reinforce a sense of national identity among children. The inclusion of the EU flag as well underlines Emmanuel Macron’s attachment to France as a pillar of the European Union.