scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Can teaching patriotism protect France?

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a country recommits to promoting national values in schools—a tradition that has flagged in the United States

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, French minister of national education, spoke at a press conference about education, citizenship, and secularism on Jan. 22 in Paris. Nicolas Massyasz/SIPA/Associated Press

In the wake of last month’s two massacres by Islamists in Paris, including at the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, millions of outraged Frenchmen and women marched under the banner “Je suis Charlie.” But not everyone identifies with this rallying cry. Just ask a schoolteacher.

On Jan. 8, during a national minute of silence, school officials reported more than 200 instances where the ceremony was disturbed. (Given that many teachers were reluctant to acknowledge such incidents, observers believe these cases were the tip of the iceberg.) Some students expressed sympathy for the murderers, agreeing that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were blasphemous. Some even defended their actions. Others spoke of doubts over the identity of the killers, or even suggested the whole event had been staged.

In the ensuing political firestorm, the government cracked down on the schools themselves. The 37-year-old minister of national education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, declared that the “French school system has not met the test.” Even at those schools where there were no incidents, she said, “too many students were asking questions,” such as why “some seem to enjoy the freedom of expression, while others”—like the comedian Dieudonné, whose shows are laced with anti-Semitic allusions—“did not.”

Two weeks ago, Vallaud-Belkacem announced a renewed strategy by which the state would “transmit republican values.” Teachers would lecture on rites of the French republic and emblems like “La Marseillaise” and the tri-colored flag, and thus reestablish their authority. Along with this back-to-basics curriculum would come a renewed focus on mastery of the French language, seen as a way to inoculate French youth against both the siren calls of jihadist websites and the often brutal argot of hip-hop culture.


From this side of the Atlantic, there is something both deeply familiar and unsettlingly strange about this new emphasis on schools as the crucible of patriotic values. Though American schools have frequently been cast in that role, we’ve come to think of that as a conservative principle; in France, by contrast, that call is coming from a socialist government. Ultimately, this ideal is less liberal or conservative than it is a reflection of what a multicultural country sees as its greatest threat. And on this front, the United States and France have in the last several decades diverged.


Ever since 1789, French republicans have embraced the notion of a single and indivisible nation, united by the universal values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The political left has long laid claim to the nation’s symbols and rituals, from the image of Marianne (the personification of liberty) to the singing of “La Marseillaise,” while the particular patriotism of the political right was more associated with the throne and altar. At the end of the 19th century, republican governments transformed the schools into something like patriotic boot camps. As the so-called hussars of the Republic, teachers rode into classrooms across France and transformed their young charges, whether they were peasants or urban laborers, Breton or Basque speakers, into Frenchmen and women.

“Our ancestors, the Gauls”: The celebrated opening line of a late-19th-century history text still informs France’s values. Though it has always been a country of immigrants, its people are still leery of a hyphenated citizenry. In their eyes, multiculturalism, which allows individuals to define themselves in terms of their ethnic or religious identities, risks debasing the currency of French republicanism. And, through the first half of the 20th century, central and southern Europeans who immigrated to France willingly subordinated their historical heritages to their newly won French identity. It was only after WWII, and the great waves of immigration from France’s former African colonies, that the republican model began to falter.

On Jan. 11, after terrorist attacks at the magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher grocery store, thousands marched through Paris in a show of unity and defiance. Some students, however, refused to observe a national minute of silence commemorating the victims. Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press

Steven Mintz, an education specialist at the University of Texas, points out that our own history of schooling differs in many ways. Unlike in France, he told me, school policy in America was until very recently “almost entirely a local matter.” There has long been a “great deal of uneasiness about demanding conformity.” To give just one example, German remained the language of instruction in certain schools in Texas through much of the 19th century, though that’s surprising to recall now amid recent debates over bilingual education. While schools did seek to instill a sense of national identity, Mintz noted, patriotic ideals were less present than “the values of self-improvement and gentility.”


Yet the distance between Paris and Texas is not as great as it appears: Like their French counterparts, American educators have also sought to channel our nation’s revolutionary heritage into school curriculums. Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at New York University and author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in Memory and History,” cited the long trajectory of the Pledge of Allegiance. These days, American liberals often see the pledge as a Trojan horse carrying God and right-wing values into the classroom. But when he created the pledge in 1892, Francis Bellamy had motives not so different from today’s French government. A Christian Socialist himself, Bellamy conceived of the pledge as the means to galvanize the moral and civic imagination of American students, too long mired in the muck and corruption of the Gilded Age. (The phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge in 1954.)

Bellamy may have been a utopian, but he was not an anomaly: Through the first decades of the 20th century, many American educators believed that the teaching of progressive values and patriotic values were, in fact, one and the same. Yet, as Zimmerman notes with some regret, American liberals largely abandoned this part of their heritage in the wakes of McCarthyism, Vietnam, and Watergate. While American conservatives have come to praise patriotic values, the left has come, if not quite to bury a unifying patriotism, at least to embrace multicultural identity as more central to what it means to be American. In the United States, both sets of values coexist, sometimes uneasily.

What is notable in both countries, meanwhile, is the growing disconnect between our soaring values and the mundane inequalities that leave many citizens disaffected. Neither the celebration of multiculturalism nor the inculcation of patriotic values, in themselves, can make such ills disappear. In France, the largely Muslim students who balked at the national minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo victims may well have been motivated by that inequality and by pervasive anti-Arab sentiment, which seems to make a mockery of national values. In a manifesto published in the French journal Mediapart, a group of high school teachers suggested that memorizing “La Marseillaise” was not likely to bring answers for their students, particularly those of North African heritage, living in decayed suburbs and without access to proper jobs nor training. “A single and indivisible Republic,” they concluded, has “become a formula emptied each and every day of its meaning.”


And yet, while words alone will never fill the gap between patriotic ideals and everyday reality, the revolutionary histories of both France and the United States remind us that words have spurred powerful movements that forced real political and social change. Singing “La Marseillaise” or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance may not be enough. But if teachers can help students want to live up to those ideals, and live together, it may be some kind of beginning.

Robert Zaretsky is professor in the Honors College at the University of Houston and author, most recently, of “Boswell’s Enlightenment” (Harvard University Press).

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the year that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was 1954.