Uniform at school, the eternal debate?


Under the hashtags #balancetonbahut and # 14septembre, middle school and high school girls have been claiming since the start of the school year the right to dress as they wish, pointing to the sexism of schools that are more strict with regard to the outfits worn by girls than by those of boys.

Questioned on this subject by RTL on September 21, the Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer declared that it was necessary to come “to school dressed in a Republican way  “. An expression that has since caused much ink to flow, reactivating the debate on the return of the uniform to the classroom.

However, contrary to what is sometimes argued, there has never been a national policy in France to impose the wearing of uniforms in primary or secondary schools. One only has to look at old class photos – and there are thousands of them on the Internet – to see firsthand that there have never been uniforms in the metropolitan public primary. And, if many students wore blouses, they were more or less disparate.

Establishment distinction

Yet it was in these communal schools , more marked by socio-cultural diversity, that the question of equality, often invoked for the fantasized imposition of the uniform, could have arisen the most. However, it is the establishments where there was a certain socio-cultural selection which in the past made their pupils wear uniforms – or uniform blouses – namely in many private establishments, but also in certain public secondary establishments, generally more upscale.

These uniforms were above all a sign of establishment distinction (in all senses of the word), the highlighting of belonging to a selected community, even of “establishment patriotism”. And the least that can be said is that educational equality was not the dominant concern in this case.

In the rather distant past, many wore disparate smocks to the communal school, admittedly. But many children also wore the gown at home. In reality, mothers preferred to wash the blouse rather than the sweater, all the more so as the constant threat of ink spattering from the “sergeant major’s pen” hovered at school. The gowns started to disappear in the 1960s, when the Bic point replaced it.

In the past, there has been more pressure to wear the uniform in female public secondary schools than in their male counterparts because the concern to train “young girls in a row” may have been more significant than that of normalizing young people.

Many of these young girls, however, tried to trick with the standardization of outfits imposed on them. And they sometimes reached compromises that could be funny, for example the obligation, to wear pants, to put over a pleated skirt in order to give the appearance of going in the direction of the regulations.

Turning of the 2000s

For the past twenty years or so, we have regularly witnessed attempts to bring the question of the school uniform into full public debate. More often than not, in order to build on the authority of a tradition that would be lost, it is claimed that it would be a return to a lamented past. And quite often, it is claimed that this return should be made in the name of “equality”. But, depending on the moment, it also happens that this is not the only reason given. And it would be wrong to ignore it.

With regard to ministerial initiatives, we must first mention those of Xavier Darcos which will be reiterated and elicit diverse, but significant reactions among high-ranking political leaders generally belonging to the right. On December 14, 2003, then Minister Delegate for School Education, he publicly declared that

“The question of the uniform in class deserves to be asked. The clothes which indicate the social origins of the pupils do not correspond to the spirit of a class where everyone must be respectful of others ”.

This declaration was shortly preceded by those of François Baroin and Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres evoking the “return of gray aprons” to fight against children “fashions victims” and especially to fight the “rise of communalism and the veil at school. “. From the start, the question of the “return” of the “uniform to school” is at least of variable geometry (in its expectations as in its forms). And that will not stop, quite the contrary.

Xavier Darcos’ supervisory minister (namely Luc Ferry , then Minister of National Education) replied sharply to the Minister for School Education that “wearing a uniform is no longer possible. All those who say that the only way to defend the Republic is to return to the pen Sergeant Major weakens the Republican idea ”. Nothing is therefore decided.

In 2007, and for the first time in a program for the presidential elections, Philippe de Villiers advocated “compulsory wearing of the school uniform and the tricolor flag hoisted in all playgrounds”. From there, and it is a new variant of the “school uniform” UFO, this unprecedented association will have a certain posterity in certain later proposals.

Policy petitions?

In May 2008, Xavier Darcos became Minister (this time full-time) of National Education. On January 18, 2009, on a visit to London , he did not promote the “gray blouse of yesteryear” or a uniform itself, but the wearing of a logo T-shirt which indicated “belonging to the ‘establishment’. Here again, both the expectations and the shape of the school uniform once again vary. But, in the end, nothing is decided. And Prime Minister François Fillon does not manifest himself in any way.

It was not until November 2011 that Prime Minister François Fillon declared in a public meeting that he was delighted

“The proposal made by several of the UMP parliamentarians to experiment with the establishment of uniform clothing in some of our schools. Uniform dress would be a sign that at school there is no class difference, no social difference. It is one of the strong elements of republican integration ”.

But nothing actually happened on this subject until May 2012, when François Fillon had to give way to Jean-Marc Ayrault following the presidential election.

This does not prevent François Fillon from reiterating the proposal in August 2013, or from declaring in a column published in the “Figaro” of May 7, 2015 that it is “in favor of all students wearing uniform clothing in order to create a spirit of community and avoid quarrels over clothing brands or the length of skirts ”.

In January 2015, Bernard Debré (with the help of around forty deputies (including Éric Ciotti and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan) had tabled a bill with significant (and historically erroneous) expectations:

“The school must be the place where the feeling of belonging to our national community and to the French Republic is formed […]. Wearing common clothing in primary and secondary schools must become the rule again ”.

Two years earlier, in January 2013, about fifteen right-wing senators had already tabled a bill making “the wearing of uniform or blouse compulsory in primary school and college”. Article 2 specified that it would be for “the management of the establishment to determine the clothing, blouse or uniform, which must be worn within it”.

Most remarkable, it is the eternal return of the question of the school uniform in the public debate for more than fifteen years without there really being passages to the act. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that we are dealing above all with professions of faith or petitions of principle which do not necessarily agree and which cannot so easily find an operational, pragmatic form.

As the SNPDEN (the main union for heads of establishments) said ten years ago in the “Figaro” of November 16, 2011, “the decision to introduce the gown or the uniform depends today of each establishment, which may decide to include it in the internal regulations. This practice is no longer successful, due to lack of demand from parents and teachers ”. And in recent years, the effective attempts can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Author Bio: Claude Lelievre is a Teacher-researcher in the history of education, honorary professor at Paris-Descartes at the University of Paris