French town trials controversial school uniforms

Uniforms could be mandatory nationwide by 2026 pending outcome of trial at about 100 schools

Pupils in uniform listen to their teacher in their classroom at the Chateau de la Chevaliere primary in Beziers, on the first day of the trial at the school. AFP
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Hundreds of pupils in southern France headed to school in uniform for the first time on Monday as part of a national experiment to determine whether to make them compulsory.

Uniforms have never been required in state schools in mainland France but the trial comes after the government announced the ban on abayas in schools last year, having already banned headscarves in 2004.

But President Emmanuel Macron last month announced a uniform trial at about 100 schools, with a view to making them mandatory nationwide in 2026 if it proves successful.

Towns run by the right wing make up the majority that signed up for the test, though the move has been met with strong resistance from some teachers, pupils and parents.

Critics say the money would be better spent in other areas of public education to improve learning.

About 700 pupils at four schools in the southern town of Beziers appeared to be the first to try it out in mainland France on Monday, after a school gave identical outfits a go in the overseas territory of La Reunion last month.

In the playground of one primary school, seven-year-old Alexia said she hoped for fewer comments from classmates about her appearance while wearing her new dark blue uniform.

"Sometimes they'd say, 'you're ugly, we're not dressed the same'. It was a bit hurtful," she said.

Now "at least we'll have the same skirt, the same top, the same jacket".

Pupils in Beziers, a town with a far-right mayor and a high unemployment rate, were invited to come with their parents to pick up their outfit during half term.

The city and national governments are sharing the €200 ($216) cost of each uniform, made up of a blazer with the school's logo, two polo shirts and one pair of trousers, as well as a pair of shorts or a skirt depending on gender.

Mayor Robert Menard said the move would help fight bullying.

"When you're rich or poor, you don't dress exactly the same way," he said. Now, "it will be less visible".

But the SE-UNSA teachers' union condemned the measure, saying it is a "superficial response to a fundamental problem" that would "in no way help resolve the troubles and failures of students".

Education Minister Nicole Belloubet said 92 schools had volunteered to try out a uniform, including in towns outside Beziers that had been "more discreet" about their involvement.

"What we would like to see is if, yes or no, wearing a uniform can create tranquillity in classrooms," said the minister.

"We know you learn better in a peaceful climate."

Schools have until June to sign up to the initiative.

First lady Brigitte Macron, a former drama teacher, has backed the introduction of school uniforms.

Far-right former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has also supported a compulsory dress code.

Updated: February 26, 2024, 7:59 PM