The Role of Éducation Civique in the Creation of French Citoyens

In common parlance, a “citizen” is a member of a state and therefore citizenship is a form of membership. However, this casual definition ignores the potential ambiguity of the meaning of the word “membership”—what does it mean to be a member of a state? In Western countries at least, membership is not defined by residence or appearance; one can live in a country without being a citizen and one can look and sound the same as everyone around them and not have membership.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) definition of citizen sheds only a dim light on this question. It defines a citizen as “an enfranchised inhabitant of a country,” erroneously establishing a connection between citizenship and residence. It also introduces the idea of enfranchisement, which strictly encompasses only the right to vote. To tie citizenship to suffrage demonstrates the insufficiency of the OED definition; Chinese citizens, for example, are certainly members of China even though they lack voting rights. However, the introduction of enfranchisement suggests that citizenship pertains to one’s legal rights within the state.

Although the OED fails to give an encompassing definition of a ‘citizen’, the concept is further elucidated by way of example. The OED continues, “In [the] U.S., a person, native or naturalized, who has the privilege of voting for public offices, is entitled to full protection in the exercise of their private rights.” This addition emphasizes that a citizen is one on whom certain rights are bestowed as a product of his/her membership in a state. In picking out the U.S. as an example, the definition also reveals the fact that conceptions of citizenship vary from country to country.
In the wake of the 2005 riots in France and increasing anxiety over African and Southeast Asian immigration into the country, the question of what it means to be a French citoyen, to be a member of France, seems urgent. Since citizenship pertains to one’s legal rights, it is important for the protection of French minority groups that their members be considered citizens so that these people have rights with which to defend themselves from the potential dangers of growing social tensions. Of course, it is necessary that they have legal rights in a court of law. However it strikes the authors that it is also important, if to a lesser degree, for all French people to recognize those rights—to recognize a shared citizenship—with members of minority groups in daily interaction by treating people as equals. It would seem that only then would people of minority feel like they are members of a unified Republic and that they were truly endowed with rights.

Following from this concern, the authors decided to use interviews to examine one of France’s oldest mechanisms for instilling Republican values: Éducation civique, juridique et sociale (ECJS, hereafter éducation civique), which begins for students in the collège years (ages 11 to 15). While this report might cover only one narrow way in which France creates its citizens, the fact that we are looking at the controlled environment of the school makes this examination of éducation civique particularly reflective of pedagogical conceptions of citizenship. Ostensibly, Éducation civique curricula are designed to integrate children from all backgrounds into the Republic as “good citizens,” however the definitions of both “good” and “citizen” are highly variable. The authors wished to see how membership in the French Republic is defined in a variety of classrooms and what values are being promoted as critical to citizenship. Is French citizenship, as the OED suggests of U.S. citizenship, focused solely on the exercise of rights, or are there other, potentially exclusionary aspects? An exclusionary aspect might be a cultural component, for example one that limits French citizenship to the culturally French. Even if such an idea exists only on the level of common perception, some people may be legally citizens of France without feeling like they belong.

This is the situation that Professor Jeremy Jennings discusses in his article “Citizenship, Republicanism and Multiculturalism in Contemporary France.” Jennings, professor of political science at the University of Birmingham, discusses “les exclus,” the excluded, and the challenges such people potentially pose to both the Republic and to Republican values. He writes of this les exclus: “Many are the citizens of today’s Fifth Republic who consider themselves to be citizens in name only…. Amongst the ‘excluded’ are quite definitely the young unemployed, often from immigrant backgrounds.” In particular, he is discussing “the young of North African descent [who] are suspected of… converting to Islamic fundamentalism, thereby turning their backs upon the welcoming embrace of French civilization” (Jennings, 580). The mechanics of exclusion, he points out, are not unilateral. For instance, it is not only the case that young Muslim men (and women) reject France and French values in favor of radical Islam because of reasons of personal faith. Rather, Jennings argues that French Republicanism also creates les exclus by being intolerant of cultural difference, whether in the form of bans on the display of religious symbols (read: hijab, the Muslim headscarf) in schools or the violently xenophobic rhetoric of Len Pen’s National Front.

Religious, racial and cultural tensions in the Fifth Republic periodically cause French society to convulse. Rightly or wrongly, it seems that many people see increasing diversity as a cause of social ills and a threat to Republican national unity. According to Jennings, such people cite, for instance, the belief that immigrant cultures cannot honor laïcité as a threat to mainstream French society. Fears about religious, racial and cultural diversity are manifest in anti-immigration policies, such as a bill Sarkozy proposed in June 2007 restricting the ability of foreigners living in France to be joined by their families. The bill required a minimum knowledge of French language, history and customs for immigrants (Bennhold). The requirements set by this bill imply that to reside in France, not to mention to be a French citizen, demands a cultural and linguistic connection to the country. Such policies in turn suggest a cultural component to the French conception of citizenship and function as selective barriers to membership.

On the other hand, there is nothing inherently culturally or religiously intolerant in the Republican ideals of fraternité, liberté, egalité. Indeed, anti-discrimination laws protect diversity in French society for all those who are already French citizens, regardless of language or culture, which differs in spirit from Sarkozy’s 2007 bill. Therefore, there is even ambiguity at the legal level about the requirements of membership to the French club. Jennings argues that the debate can be reduced to one of an interpretation of Republicanism. Those who see cultural belonging as essential to French citizenship take a “traditionalist” view, “which refuses to make any concessions to the claims of multiculturalism.” In contrast, there is “multiculturalist republicanism, which calls for a pluralist conception of civic identity and a recognition of the positive value of minority cultures” (Jennings, 575). It seems that for the traditionalists, one must conform to French social mores and cultural values to be French, whereas the multiculturalists are probably in favor of broader or more welcoming definitions of citizenship. 
Appealing to a dictionary for a French definition of citizenship does not help resolve the debate. Both sides can find justification for their beliefs. The Dictionnaire de sociologie, edited by Jean Étienne, gives the following definition of citoyenneté: 

Citizenship is both a status, corresponding to a collection of legal rights and serving as the foundation of political legitimacy in a democratic society, and an identity based on a sentiment of belonging to a political collective and a source of social linkage. Forged by the state-nation, citizenship makes necessary a distinction between the private sphere… and public sphere, in which expression of belonging to the national community is prioritized. (Translated by authors; authors’ italics)

The ambiguity about what constitutes a French citizen lies in how people conceive the idea of “belonging to a political collective.” One imagines that Jennings’s traditionalists, supported by such legislation as that proposed by Sarkozy in 2007, would feel that the public expression of belonging to the French national community requires some cultural connection to France. Multiculturalists might feel that belonging to the political collective requires only buying into the basic legal tenants of the state, which can be done by people of all cultures.

Éducation civique, as it developed historically and as its curricula is described in recent interviews, suggests an understanding of what it means to belong to the French political collective similar to that of the multiculturalists. As will be shown, éducation civique seems to adopt a much more legalistic understanding of French citizenship that, whether or not it is realistic to do so, treats all people as equally able to belong to the political collective. Insofar as éducation civique focuses on the development of a student’s public self, it tends to ignore the particularities of religion and culture, which are understood as matters of the private sphere. Although this legalistic approach does not place a value on diversity, it is similar to the multiculturalist approach in that both are inclusive. It holds that all people can be integrated into the unified Republic.

 Historically, the responsibility for forming citizens out of individuals rested on the public school system. As with all things, éducation civique is the product of history; to understand éducation civique as it is today, one must understand the different interests that contributed to its creation. In particular, a historical review of the program allows us to understand how political considerations influenced the development of éducation civique curricula at various times.

The modern French school, created by Françoise Giraud in the 19th century, began as a compromise between competing pedagogical trends, notably pure civic education, which has been described as similar to civic indoctrination, and Enlightenment rationalism. The young Republic intended to produce citizens who would defend it against internal and external threats, but there were disagreements about how to go about this task. Some visions of how to do this were extremist, such as those of Louis Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (1760—1793), who advocated Spartan education for all men and women in state run schools. Spartan education included regimenting children in “Egalitarian Houses” at a young age in order to instill in them a strong Republican spirit, as one might have placed a girl in a convent in order to indoctrinate her into a religious faith. Spartan schools minimized the importance of liberal instruction relative to an ideological civic education (Lewis, 94). 

In contrast, and in conformity with Enlightenment ideals, Marie Jean Antoine, Nicolas de Caritat and Marquis de Condorcet (1743—1794), wrote a report called “L’organisation générale de l’instruction pulique” (“A General Organization of Public Instruction”) in April 1792. The main goal of his report was to synthesize Enlightenment rationality with the desire to produce militant citizens to defend the Republic from both interior and exterior threats to its stability (Lewis, 92). Like Le Peletier, Condorcet believed in universal public education, but stressed the teaching of free and scientific thinking over civic indoctrination as the best defense of Republican values. 

Giraud’s final product was based predominantly on Condorcet’s ideas, but in the spirit of compromise, civic education was included in the new schools as éducation civique. Two ideas were emphasized, each representing one side of the debate and each claiming primacy in the creation of good citizens: morality and patriotism. Since Giraud’s founding of éducation civique, the relative balance between the importance of morality and patriotism in the curriculum has shifted at various times throughout history.

From the Revolution until as late as World War II, éducation civique took the form of morality lessons. Classes started every morning with an ethical apothegm that children recited. This lesson was the same for boys and girls, even if during the rest of day the genders had different courses.  The girls learned to sew and the boys did physical exercises. While some men did receive higher education, they were trained mostly to fight. Girls studied to become good wives. The gender-based differences in instruction illustrate that for a long time, schools played a significant role in the formation of a gender-based definition of good citizenship. Under this regime, éducation civique was not restricted to public behavior, but intruded deep into the private sphere both in its definition of a citizen and in its pedagogy. Note, however, that when it came to moral standards or values, the Republic did not differentiate between young men and women—ethics were not gendered.

Following the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, education civique began also to foster intense patriotism in response to the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Children studied maps in which France was dramatically missing Alsace-Lorraine. They also learned very patriotic and solidarity-building “collective songs.” The French education system was used to prepare children for war, but, after the tragedies of the First World War, patriotism was once again de-emphasized. France had paid a large price and, after 1919, felt safe behind the Maginot Line. A similar withdrawal from militant patriotism occurred again following the Second World War. Many French became pacifists, a trend that was echoed in the éducation civique curricula of the mid-20th century, which re-emphasized moral and ethical education at the expense of patriotism.

During the 1970s, éducation civique disappeared entirely, only to reappear 15 years later. In the 1970s, as a result of post-colonial anxiety, there was mounting intolerance for war following conflict in Indochina and Algiers, and the legacy of May 1968, and both the moralizing and militant nature of éducation civique went out of style and it was removed from the school curricula. However in 1985, it reappeared as an initiative of Jean Pierre Chevenement, then the far-left Minister of Education. According to an article in the New York Times from June 18, 1985, Chevenement instituted a very conservative education policy in response to the poor educational performance of French students during a period of high tension over immigration issues, specifically the beginning of regroupement familial policies. Regroupement familial allowed immigrants to bring their families to France. The families of young African men in particular were blamed for the decline in education standards. The re-establishment of éducation civique was part of Chevenement’s answer to the problem. At first, the program was denounced as archaic and authoritarian; people spoke about the “enlistment of the young” into a conservative popular front. Others objected on the grounds that schools had no role in moral education. Regardless, éducation civique has continued, although it remains controversial even today. No one is quite sure (or at least no one agrees on) what exactly it is achieving and how. Of the teachers interviewed, all agreed that éducation civique plays a role in the creation and formation of good French citizens, but of course, no one is sure of what this means in practice.

Currently, éducation civique courses begin in the first year of collège (sixieme) and continue for four years until students begin the lycée. Officially, the curriculum is designed by the French Ministry of National Education and includes units on the following laundry list of socio-political ideas: rights and duties, civic responsibility, equality, solidarity, security, Republicanism, Democracy, power in the Republic, political and social citizenship, as well as debates around issues of democracy, defense and peace. The state-approved curriculum appears to focus on introducing the political ideas that underpin the Republic. In the traditional duality between patriotic politics and ethics/morals defined in the earliest instances of éducation civique, the contemporary curriculum is directed more towards patriotism.
That some schools are teaching an unemotional patriotism, i.e. an appreciation for the French system rather than a Republican fervor, became clear in a conversation with the Agabalyan family. André Agabalyan, a successful Franco-Armenian businessman, is married to an Englishwoman named Jan Ingram, who works with UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning. They live in the suburb of Nanterre and have four daughters, three of whom were born in Paris and all of whom attend or attended private schools in a wealthier suburb. Mme. Ingram describes the civic education her daughters received in French schools as detached from private issues. She recalls that civics classes were “to teach how the government works. It was a very academic type of education, full of facts and information.” This reflects, in her mind, what it means to be a French citoyen. “Becoming a French citizen is taking the time to find out how the [political] system works.” Mr. Agabalyan agrees with his wife’s fundamentally legal understanding of citizenship. He was born in the Paris suburb Montreuil into an Armenian immigrant family and has lived in and around Paris for all of his 49 years. He remembers that his experience of éducation civique consisted of learning “how the mayor[‘s office] works: structure.” When asked, he defined French citizenship as “paying taxes in France and having the right to vote.” Thus the Agabalyans believe in an exclusively legal definition of French citizenship that does not intrude into one’s private or cultural identity. Furthermore, they felt their daughters’ experience of éducation civique, which follows closely the curriculum designed by the Ministry of National Education, was commensurate with their idea of citizenship in its focus on the structure and function of the government.
However straightforward the Agabalyans’ definition of citizenship seems, the conversation also indicated complexities in French self-identification relating to citizenship, if only indirectly. While Mr. Agabalyan said he considered himself a French citizen, he clarified that he did not feel French. “To feel French you need parents who are French and grandparents who are French,” he said, “It is difficult to assimilate. For people to become French, they have to have the same culture.” Of their daughters, Mme. Ingram said that they did not feel French until they began to attend private school, which was predominantly white and culturally French. She recalls that she once received a letter from her children’s school that referred to the girls as “your blonde little angels,” suggesting ethnic homogeneity in French society despite evidence to the contrary. That her daughters are all brunettes was not lost on Mme. Ingram, who believes that French culture is closed off to those who do not conform ethnically or culturally. There seems to be little room for those of hyphenated ethnicity, like Mr. Agabalyan. However, Mme. Ingram admits that her daughters, though Anglo-French, are slowly integrating.

The Agabalyans describe a gap between French citizenship, citoyenneté, and “Frenchness,” or being culturally French. The significance of this division is that even while someone is legally a citoyen, if he or she is not seen as French they may not be treated equally either under law or in daily interactions. It is in this social, interactive area that one’s public, legal self and private, cultural self cannot always be neatly separated. As Mr. Agabalyan expresses it: “You’ve got to respect each other so that we can walk in the street.” Although there are many facets to respect, it strikes the authors as reasonable that, generally speaking, two people who understand each other to both be citizens of France—members of the same club—will have more immediate mutual respect than a pair of people who understand each other to be on different sides of a divide—insider and outsider. Recalling the Dictionnaire de sociologie definition, citizenship is “both a status, corresponding to a collection of legal rights” and a “source of social linkage” via a political collective. The social linkage is fundamental to one’s daily exercise of rights and must be based on a mutual recognition of citizenship. Jennings’s “traditionalists” hope to use cultural difference as a barrier to such mutual recognition whereas the “multiculturalists” and those who adopt a legalistic definition of citizenship do not believe that such barriers exist.

This perhaps explains in part why other éducation civique curricula diverge from the Ministry of National Education plan and directly address issues of mutual respect in social interactions. Joëlle Merlini is the vice principal of Collège de la Grange du Bois. Mme. Merlini’s school has been attended mostly by working class and immigrant students. Mme. Merlini defines citizenship as “showing respect to others and to the private property of others.” Reflecting this definition, students in sixieme focused in 2008 on correcting the disrespect of boys towards girls and bad behavior in public transportation. In 2009, one of the subjects will be learning to respect traditional French culture. For Mme. Merlini, formal education expends many resources when trying to undo the results of the informal education many of her students have received in their difficult home environments. She is hoping to create citizens who respect each other.

Anne-Lorraine Bujon, mother and former university teacher, agrees with Mme. Merlini that learning vivre ensemble (how to live together) in the Republic was a critical aspect of éducation civique and good citizenship. This reflects concerns over social integration and a desire for people to develop the “sentiment of belonging” the Dictionnaire de sociologie identifies as central to citoyenneté. “I always had the feeling,” she said, “that the goal was from an early age to teach children to live in a group, to balance needs and expectations with a group.” This is very different from teaching abstract Republican values; rather, it is teaching the practice of Republican values without regard to abstracts like patriotism. It is ethical and behavioral education built on the assumption that people will integrate if they interact.

For better or worse, this model of éducation civique does not address the gap between French citizenship and Frenchness at its roots, but it does emphasize that those who are culturally French and those who are not both can and must coexist as citizens in the Republic. Insofar as this model seeks to dictate students’ behavior and interactions, it cannot be viewed as dealing only with the public self. Intuitively, behavior is a personal, private concern. On the other hand, this model of éducation civique seems directed primarily at people’s group or public interactions and not at issues of cultural integration. This model responds to Mr. Agabalyan’s concern about mutual respect for shared citizenship on an every day, grassroots level. Furthermore, a focus on vivre ensemble is not culturally exclusive. Respectful behavior is a cross-cultural virtue.

The authors found one example in which the two models of éducation civique described above (that introduced by the Agabalyans and that introduced by Mme.s Merlini and Bujon) are intertwined. Jean-Claude Tchicaya is a teacher at Cité Scolaire de Henri-Wallon 93, which has a primarily non-white and underprivileged student body. He has a dynamic approach to éducation civique. In 2008, he used the example of a crime committed by three young boys who had dropped out of school. They tried to rob an old lady but were caught by the police and brought to trial. Using this story, M. Tchicaya addressed many civic values, such as respect, equality, rights, and social responsibilities and also educated the students about the process and structure of the French judicial system. He saw that his students believed incorrectly that the French legal system functioned in the same way as the American system, which students had learned from Hollywood movies. To counter such misconceptions, he draws on real legal case studies to which his students can relate (Dieu). One can deduce from M. Tchicaya’s model of éducation civique that his definition of citizenship includes both a measure of respect and shared values and also a basic knowledge of how the state works—not only abstractly, but also with direct relevance to the lives and experiences of his students.

If we are to base our understanding of French citizenship on the various modes of éducation civique described above, it is clear that schools are not propagating the culturally exclusive conceptions of French citizenship put forth in both Sarkozy’s 2007 immigration bill and Jennings’s explanation for the existence of les exclus. Rather, the curricula are following historical precedents in balancing political and moral education to reflect the pressing needs of the Republic, which cannot be answered with exclusionary or culturally hegemonic means. France is already diverse and, it seems, will only continue to become more multicultural with time. A definition of citizenship built out of the éducation civique curricula would include the argument, like the definition in the Dictionnaire de sociologie, that citizenship includes the basic rights and protections offered by French law, but, unlike the dictionary definition, our definition would also include the importance of being tolerant of private differences as a member of a public political collective. The Dictionnaire de sociologie remains vague on this point because it seems that there is still debate in France about the desirable and necessary separation between Frenchness and citoyenneté. Jennings’s writings and Mr. Agabalyan’s interview both testify to the fact that while éducation civique may espouse an inclusive, legalistic definition of citizenship, this view is perhaps not shared universally in France, at least explaining the existence of les exclus.


Interviews and Lectures

Agabalyan, André, Owner of AGA System, June 26, 2008.

Bujon, Anne-Lorraine, HIA European Center Director, Paris, France, June 25, 2008.

Graniou, Elise, Teacher of Literature, Paris, France, June 29, 2008.

Ingram, Jan, International Institute for Educational Planning Web Manager, Paris, France, June 26, 2008.

Larcher, Silyane, Student in Political Sciences in Sciences Po. preparing her Ph.D., Paris, France, July 2, 2008.

Merlini, Joëlle. Vice Principal of Collège de la Grange Dubois, Paris, France, June 28, 2008.

Ruchet, Olivier, (Lecture), Sciences Po. Lecturer in Political Science, Paris, France, June 16, 2008


Bennhold, Katrin. “Sarkozy moves quickly to tighten immigration laws.” International Herald Tribune, June 12, 2007.

Cheb Sun, Marc, “République Parle-nous!” Respect magazine, 19 (2008): 16-20

Dieu, Louis, “Valoriser l’éducation à la citoyenneté” Respect magazine, 19 (2008): 20

Dijkstra, Steven, Karin Geuijin, and De Ruijter Arie. “Multiculturalism and Social Integration in Europe.” International Political Science Review / Revue interntaionale de science politique, 22 (2001): 55-83.

Étienne, Jean, et. al. Dictionnaire de sociologie: Les notions, les mécanismes, les auteurs. Paris: Hatier, 2004.

Haste, Helen. “Constructing the Citizen.” Political Psychology, 25 (2004): 413-439.

Hechinger, Fred M. “About Education: French Socialist Takes a Conservative Stand.” New York Times, June 18, 1985.

Jennings, Jeremy. “Citizenship, Republicanism and Multiculturalism in Contemporary France.” British Journal of Political Science, 30 (2000): 575-597.

Laborde, Cécile. “From Constitutional to Civic Patriotism.” British Journal of Political Science, 32 (2002): 591-612.

Laborde, Cécile. “The Culture(s) of the Republic: Nationalism and Multiculturalism in French Republican Thought.” Political Theory, 29 (2001): 716-735.

Lewis, Gwynne. The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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