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Is it time for France to introduce school uniforms?

The Local, Jun 5

Parents in one French town have made a potentially landmark vote to introduce uniforms for pupils in six of the town's primary schools. 

Parents of primary school children in the town of Provins in the greater Paris region of Ile-de-France recently voted to bring in uniforms by a majority of 62.4 percent.

That means that from November onwards pupils at the six primary schools included in the vote initiated by the town hall will introduce a uniform comprising trousers (with a choice of skirts for girls and shorts for boys) and a polo shirt with the logo, "Public Schools of Provins - Freedom, equality, fraternity".

The uniform will not be mandatory however Mayor of Provins Olivier Lavenka from the right-wing Les Republicains party said he hoped that group mentality would mean that 100 percent of children would wear it.

"I know school uniforms well, because I grew up in the Soviet Union and we always wore a uniform," one father told FranceInfo. "It is about equality between pupils, and it represents discipline, too."

But the result of the vote, in which 345 of the families out of the 609 concerned took part, has not gone down well with everyone, with some parents responding badly to the news that they will be expected to fork out €145 just so that their children can wear a school uniform.

One mother, Isabelle, told Franceinfo that she would simply refuse to buy it for her daughter.

"A parent should be able to put their child into a free, public school, without having to first put their hand into their wallet to pay for a uniform," she said, adding that the vote meant that parents in Provins were left with the choice of paying for a private school or paying for a uniform.

Meanwhile, some students have also expressed their disappointment at the news.

"It's bad, it's like going back, we're in 2018 not in 1900," one child told Franceinfo.

The history

Since the 1960s, with a few exceptions uniforms have not been enforced in public schools in France.

The reasons cited for this change vary, with some claiming that they were banned after the student uprisings of May '68.

However, education historian Claude Lelièvre told BFM TV that the catalyst for the change was actually the introduction of the bic pen in 1965 which meant that clothes were less likely to be damaged by ink during the school day.

Up until they were phased out, French school children commonly wore smocks in order to protect their clothes, which were more expensive at the time and Lelièvre said that even before pupils stopped wearing them, the smocks were never compulsory.

"They had a functional use in public communal schools but it was not mandatory and much less a uniform," said Lelièvre, adding that in photos from the time, you can see that the smocks were very varied and not all students wore them.

"It is nostalgia for something that never existed," Lelièvre said of the argument of some politicians that uniforms should be introduced across France.

But could this be the start of a uniform change?

The row over the introduction of uniforms has become heated which is perhaps unsurprising considering the fact that it is an issue that is periodically raised in France sometimes by politicians keen to make it compulsory across the country.

Those in favour raise the question of equality, arguing that it is a way to prevent students being judged according to how much money their families can afford to spend on clothes.

Even French President Emmanuel Macron, promised "to think about it", saying that it could be a "a symbol", like the national anthem.

In an interview with Sud Ouest in March 2016, he said it would be "important in creating consistency and showing that school is a place apart".

And as early as 2003, Xavier Darcos, France's education minister at the time, came out in favour of school uniforms.

"We could experiment that students all wear the same t-shirt or a comparable outfit, it would not be outrageous," Darcos said at the time. "On the contrary, it would be an additional way of intergrating."

And again in 2015, several right wing politicians tried unsuccessfully to push a bill to introduce school uniforms.

"It is a factor of equality that symbolically smooths the social differences that comes from the inequalities of parents' incomes," the bill said.

However, some argue that introducing uniforms is not the way to erase inequalities between pupils.

"If we think that the uniform will make inequalities disappear, it is a decoy," Frédérique Rolet, General Secretary of education union, SNES-FSU, told the French press.

"There are a lot of things that differentiate students based on parents' standard of living, such as holidays or cell phones, and a uniform is not likely to change anything," she added.

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