Photo 1: Projection of the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer’s pre-registered opening speech. Author's photographs. All rights reserved.
The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks intensified discussions around the role of education in inculcating the principles of laicity. But is laicity a prerequisite for overcoming the present crises, including that in education? The problems faced by France are in no ways inherent in laicity, argued L. de Coq, in a hearing in front of the Senate. But if laicity is neither the problem nor the solution, are the values of the French Republic – liberté, égalité, fraternité? Can a focus on the values of the Republic achieve more than this French version of secularism?
The exam topic set for the brevet des Collèges, the French high school diploma in 2017 – “How is the French army at the service of the values of the Republic and the EU?” – suggests an answer to this dilemma. Unlike laicity, values can be projected through military action beyond the borders of the Republic whilst concurrently legitimating the military within the Republic’s borders, through education.
The high stakes around the “French army and the values of the Republic” extend beyond the brevet exam (although the students’ responses would make interesting reading). On the one hand, academics and associations have fought against the diffusion through the education system of the reactionary values suggested by the exam question. On the other hand, military elites have been working towards them, aiming to use education to promote a new common sense bridging of the institutional ethics of the military and corporations.
In this article, I bring these two bodies together, knowing that there is little chance that we would catch them in direct debate, or if it were to happen, that they would ever shift their positions. Instead I turn to two events, strangely enough, only a week apart. The first was a conference critical of the brevet question at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales on 14 March. Entitled, “The French army and the values of the Republic: a state of affairs”, this was organised at the initiative of the association Survie, a group working against Françafrique, i.e., France’s neo-colonial relationships with Africa, with the collaboration of the EHESS branch of the French Human Rights League (FHRL).
The second was a military-civil conference on “Civil society and military community: defending together the values of France,” held at the Sorbonne on 23 March, at the initiative of La Saint-Cyrienne, the association of students and former students of the Special Military Institute of Saint Cyr, in association with the Academic Region of Ile-de-France (in partnership with the Sorbonne). Rather than analyse either conference per se, I will set their arguments against each other, to better understand the wider social and political dynamics currently at play in France.
Converging military and corporate ethics: (impunity of) values in military action
Having the conference at the Sorbonne on the fiftieth anniversary of the protest events of 1968 and holding it in the sumptuous Grand Amphitheatre points to a tide of change.
The event, not remotely feasible in earlier years, was seen to be warranted by the new “oecumenical climate” created by the vivre ensemble instituted by President Macron. At the conference, state officials, essayists, high ranking military officers and corporate leaders interviewed by journalists in four roundtables, discussed the ways civil society and the military community might come together to defend the values of the Republic.
Leading the way towards collaboration between the civil and the military worlds, including the contiguous army-tutoring and university-military school (St. Cyr) relationship, the conference reflected a lightening of attitude towards the French army (since the Algerian war).
As pointed out by C. Coton (at the EHESS conference) regarding the brevet question specifically, a challenge easily applicable to the Sorbonne conference, military officers take hold of a particular world view, diffuse it through partnerships and elevate the military institution through discussions of values, such as fraternity, equal opportunity and merit, presenting the army as akin to a school – and even emancipatory. They build on the idea that the homeland is under attack and requires further integration. And what better way to achieve cogent integration than to transmit values through education?
More specifically, as understood and disseminated by the military, the threat against the homeland launched by the forces of all the types of “isms” at the heart of globalization – not just terrorism but also individualism, nationalism, regionalism, and communitarianism – calls for the country’s defence, perhaps even liberation from its own reforms. National cohesion, heritage and the army can ensure this defence.
National cohesion, heritage and the army can ensure this defence. Paradoxically, France is attacked by terrorists for what it is, its values of vivre ensemble, and attacked by “its own” (terrorists) for failing to keep its promise on integration. The defence of French values requires integration (the vivre ensemble as a pragmatic step of the administrative state to secure the future), and this can be achieved by investing in and transmitting values based on ethics, in military operations, and also as everyday moral values through education.
As suggested by General de Villiers at the Sorbonne conference, a personal ethic built on the corporate model of individual happiness can also be associated with the fraternity of arms. The ethics of hierarchical command, comprising honour, humility and heroism, is expressed in French corporations (i.e. those that are more ethical and less profit oriented) and in the military alike. The boss of a large corporation is him or herself, an ethical exemplar, said the vice president of MEDEF (French Employers Association), G.R de Bezier.
At the core of this Sorbonne debate was the idea that military action, through the exemplarity of soldiering and leadership, the risk-taking and winning, inspires the values it defends and is not merely informed by them. Military action transforms value into virtue, underscored General de Woillemont: the army inspires those values through its sense of both the collective and the singular, and its humanist way of combat (la force maîtrisée); war summons sense and moral ethics in life and death situations. Accordingly, war should be legitimized and France’s war-making proudly proclaimed: it is the only presence in the Sahel and it has conducted victorious operations, such as Barkhane in Mali. By taking significant risks, it overcomes in a time of terror when victory over the jihadist enemy has proved difficult. Its victory extends to the conquered domain, with Africans urged to create their own armies.
The idea of values honed to virtue through military action (la force maîtrisée) can of course be disputed by the impunity with which twenty-first century military crimes have taken place – a telling riposte to the Sorbonne discourse made by R. Granvaud, spokesperson of Survie at the EHESS conference. He pointed to crimes committed in external operations at various conjuctures in Africa, including rapes, exactions and torture, neutralisations (arrests and eliminations) in unilateral or multilateral operations and/or in complicity with African armies. Throughout the examples cited, impunity due to internal preferential treatment was flagrant, especially since the 2014-2018 Law on Military Programming denied the possibility for civil parties to engage in judiciary action against military infractions committed in external operations or in special forces operations classified Secret Defence.
Thanks to impunity and secrecy, the French military and military institutions more generally remain unpunished for crimes committed. Only international justice can remedy the situation.
This danger is heightened by the institutional centrality of the military, C. Serfati argued at the EHESS conference[i]. Decisions on army engagements are made not by the Parliament but by the President in Defence Council (art.15 of the 4.oct 1958 Constitution and art. 5 par.2). Moreover, there are no precise definitions of an external operation (art.35 of the Constitution).
A values-inspired education vs. a decolonized education
Military-corporate values were referred to throughout the Sorbonne conference as educational tools. Leadership ethics and discipline rely on an exemplary leading figure and its imitation, while the practice of camaraderie transforms values into virtues. Obedience to values and to the hierarchy will eventually turn disintegration into integration, with a convergence of values between school and family.
For the integration of adult youth in difficulty, the army has developed the Adapted (overseas) Military Service. Further, the military can work with schools to develop civil instruments to train youth for a smooth integration into companies or the military. Schools like Esperance, under the watchful eye of military directors, can instil values – academic, educational and integrative – to teenage youths, providing the respectful understanding of public order they are thought to need. And cooperation between the military school St. Cyr and advanced schools of commerce can enhance these common values.
Photo 2&3 The Esperance school children singing the Marseillaise along with civilians, reservists, high-ranked militaries and St.Cyr students in uniform.
All the EHESS contributors made a case for the independence of education and academic research, and S. Laurens, assistant professor and co-organiser of the conference, argued for the study of the military and military elites as an independent topic, not subject to military and strategic preoccupations or funding.
Independent studies, they argued, like C. Coton’s research on military officers, can explode the myth of the army’s contribution to equality and meritocracy[ii]. Despite its open recruitment, and its bid to help youth succeed in integrating, military institutions reproduce the domination of the ruling order. Valorisation of combat experience may give an impression of advancement among officers not trained at St. Cyr, when in fact, they are all too often easily discredited, for example by being given the command of units of instruction, rather than of combat – the latter commonly reserved for St. Cyr graduates.
Independent research and investigation into the military dimension of Françafrique can contribute to decolonise education from the inside, argued J. Moisan, co-organiser and campaign coordinator for Survie. The brevet question urges us to look at the way paths are constructed in history, and tie together army and nation, foregrounding the family and the child as the target of army and corporations alike.
Taking the African detour can reroute and decolonise education. Consider if the brevet question had been put to people in Africa, those protesting in the streets of Abidjan against the French army, or to college children in Tchad or to Tchadiens, more generally, said M. Debos and N. Powell. Rewriting French national narratives from Tchad would reveal a less glorious history and different historical timelines: it would expose France’s reinforcement of authoritarian regimes, its deadly alliances, the manipulation it took to engage in different wars[iii]. So how transcendent and noble are the values of the Republic when they render destruction and domination incarnate and set out to achieve an obedience that simply reproduces the same schemes?
France at war: over values
In 2015, Hollande proclaimed France at war: it had suffered a coordinated operation of war on its national soil, an unprecedented number of victims and an attack on the values of the Republic[iv]. France’s defence, now in the hands of the army, actively called on civil society, through the brevet question or through conferences under the Macron Presidency, to come together to defend republican values.
The Macron Presidency, which from the outset has been deliberately punctuated by military moments from visits to injured soldiers to extravagant military parades that allow Macron to play de Gaulle, was castigated by the EHESS conference organisers for unconditionally supporting the military, and not only symbolically. Beyond the symbolic aspect, what both President Macron and the military aim to achieve when they invoke values and ethics is to transcend the political and the partial – Macron’s transcendence passes through the military and the military’s through education. Official ostentatious ceremonies, for example, where officers in uniform watch Esperance school children sing the national anthem in the Sorbonne amphitheatre or where President Macron parades as commander-in-chief of the army at the rekindling of the Flame of Remembrance exemplify these performative moments of transcendence.
Macron’s support for the army is also material: defence is not under attack in recent policy as the press is quick to suggest, Serfati said at the EHESS conference. Defence is the biggest winner in President Macron’s dismantling of social rights. By 2025, the defence budget will reach 50 billion euros (up from 32 billion in 2017), not counting pensions and external operations’ over-costs or the 2% PIB for NATO. The growth rate for school education will significantly decrease over the same period, but the real losers are labour and employment.
Where to draw the line on military entrism
The flattened vision I have presented of the Sorbonne conference obscures the achievement of the organisers in bringing together the different tendencies, personalities and the network of relations linking them to reactionary power and state institutions[v]. The military’s efforts to invest in education are thus facilitated by the current government programme. Where then does military entrism in education stop?
Interestingly, the military itself draws a line in its willingness to transform the educational system to fit military ethical and practical priorities for the universal national system proposed by President Macron. The military objection, mentioned in passing during the Sorbonne conference, was expanded into an exchange, when the organisers addressed the considerable cost of the military and its lack of response to the crisis in the educational system. The army cannot conduct war and also instruct: however, the new forms of schools – as proposed above – will allow the army to concentrate on its main priority.
More essentially, behind the brevet, the conference and the networking is an effort by the armed forces to coordinate relations between military and civil actors: they turn to civil society through reservists to build cooperation, at the heart of which they inscribe combat values.
Civil society actors are protesting this tide, whether seeking to decolonise education or trying to counter French military action. They draw another line, opposing all military entrism in education.
Alternative media and protestors outside the Sorbonne on the day of the conference voiced their opposition to the partnership between St. Cyr and the Sorbonne, the militarised model of school and the corporate cult of success it promoted. Protestors, more broadly mobilised against the Macron government’s educational reforms, denounced the expected attendance of the vice-president of the MEDEF, the president-founder of Espérance banlieues – and one of the organisers of the 2012 Manif pour tous (Protest for Everyone) against same-sex marriage and the Minister of Education.
They circulated flyers asking the Minister of Education how the ideas expressed at the conference were the best ones to build a future society. How does downplaying or instrumentalising the role of education in the name of the defence of populations and the removal of the risks of insecurity build a safe environment, asked J. Moisan, co-organiser of the EHESS conference.
Although they took different points of view, the two conferences underline the conflation of political and educational projects and a future of order and vivre ensemble jointly produced – not without discord – by the government and the military.
Promoting independence and emancipation of education from corporations and the army and instilling critical thinking are still the best ways to prevent the narrowing of freedoms and the recruitment of hearts and minds in a new societal – militarized – order. Especially when the values promoted are so antithetical to those of freedom, solidarity and equality.
[i] Serfati C. Le militaire. Une histoire française, Ed. Amsterdam, 2017, p.240
[ii] Coton C. Officiers. Des classes en lutte sous l’uniforme, Agone, coll. L’ordre des choses, 2017, p.288.
[iii] Debos M. and Powell N. “‘L’autre pays des ‘guerres sans fin’. Une histoire de la France militaire au Tchad (1960-2016)”, Les Temps Modernes vol2, no.693-694), 2017, p.221-266. URL: https://www.cairn.info/revue-les-temps-modernes-2017-2-page-221.htm
[iv] Daho G. La transformation des armées. Enquête sur les relations civilo-militaires en France, Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, coll. Le (bien) commun, 2016, 406 p
[v] The Sorbonne conference resulted also from the “camaraderie in arms” of two men, General Dary (president of La Sainte Cyrienne) and G. Pécout (rector of the Academy of Paris) who renewed their friendship weaved through past professional positions and set the conference in motion at the ceremony of the Flame of Remembrance.