State Secularism from the Classroom up: Examining the Role of French Teachers in Carrying out Laïcité Policies

Friday, 20 July 2018: 11:15
Oral Presentation
Christopher LIZOTTE, University of Helsinki, Finland
France’s long-held principle of state secularism, laïcité, is expressed through multiple areas of social service provision, but perhaps nowhere most intensely as in public education. Within this core institution of French society, multiple attempts have been made over decades to emphasize a common national secular identity. I examine the latest major iteration of this phenomenon, a package of pedagogical and administrative reforms called the Grande Mobilisation pour les Valeurs de la République. Focusing on core French values including laïcité, these were enacted following the January 2015 attacks in and around Paris, most notably directed at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo.

What is most notable about these reforms is that it is primarily ground-level educators – teachers, principals, and others – who are responsible for monitoring students’ adherence to French principles of secular society as they are defined by the national-level Ministry of Education. As a result, there is a distinctly individualized and localized form of personal experience and discretion that plays a key role in the implementation of the Grande Mobilisation. Despite this, the role played by this local level in carrying out state education priorities remains somewhat undertheorized.

I draw on work in critical education and critical policy studies, as well as recent work in critical geopolitics that calls attention to the exercise of state power at an intimate level, to present a framework for how we can understand the role occupied by ground-level educators in the realization of national educational priorities. This is an especially important in the context of governments across Europe that are facing an erosion of their authority from populist nationalism on the one hand, and increasing flows of migrants on the other, and so are responding by doubling down on their insistence on traditional civic values as a marker of belonging.