Students and educators in France oppose integration of national service into high schools

Last week, Secretary of State for Youth Sarah El Haïry and the General National Service confirmed plans to start the voluntary national service for high school students by March 2024 by organizing 12-day cohesion camps for training during school time

June 20, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Students Protest - France
A protest against Parcoursup in Sorbonne University. (Photo: via Assan Laekhoul/Facebook)

Various student/youth groups and educators’ unions denounced the French government’s plan to integrate the General National Service (Service national universel, SNU), a voluntary month-long national service scheme, in high schools in the country. Earlier last week, Secretary of State for Youth Sarah El Haïry and the SNU confirmed plans to start the voluntary national service for high school students by March 2024 by organizing 12-day ‘cohesion camps’ for training during school time. 

Students groups such as La Voie Lycéenne and the Independent and Democratic Federation of High School Students (FIDL), educators’ unions like CGT-Educ’action, and Sud Education, and youth groups including the Young Communist Movement of France (MJCF) slammed the decision calling it a scandal intended to misuse public funds for conducting a “parody of military service” during school time.

In 2021, the Emmanuel Macron government had introduced SNU for youths from the age group of 16 to 25 to inculcate French national values in them. During this period, they have to serve in both civil and military facilities. This scheme was envisaged to replace the Defense Preparation Day activities which were mandatory for the French youth. Currently, SNU programs are on for young people in some regions in France, dubbed by critics as a moderate version of conscription. 

Debates about whether to make the voluntary service compulsory for all youth are currently ongoing in the country. Sarah El Haïry and Minister of National Education Pap N’Diaye have been advocating for integration of the SNU into high schools. The government has promised additional funds to schools that actively promote SNU and there are plans to give special preference to students who attend the program on Parcoursup, a digital platform involved in the selection of students for undergraduate courses of high demand. 

The introduction of Parcoursup in 2018 and the Baccalaureate reforms in 2019 by the first Macron government had also courted criticism from students and the academic community for creating confusion and anxiety among students and for generating inequality between students in the ‘rich’ schools and the ‘poorer’, peripheral ones. Protests against elitist, exclusionary tendencies in college admissions through the Parcoursup portal are still ongoing. On June 15, the Union of Communist Students (UEC) and the MJCF protested at the rectorate of the Sorbonne University in Paris against Parcoursup and the faulty selection system.

On June 15, MJCF said in its statement, “It is unacceptable that such a device like SNU should take away 12 days of teaching from students. While the new version of the baccalaureate has already withdrawn several weeks of classes because of the anticipated tests, such a device would aggravate the decrease in the hourly volumes of teaching.”

“If the objective of the SNU is to teach moral and civic education, the government only has to recruit more teachers to ensure its implementation. If the government wants to allow young people to go on holiday, let it finance the popular education associations that fight day by day to allow young people to go on holiday, to play sports, to play  music. For the MJCF, the SNU is a catch-all device that operates a dangerous confusion between the army, popular education, and moral and civic education,” added the MJCF.