France is debating whether to make school uniforms compulsory for all public schools, a proposal that has sparked controversy and opposition from some politicians and educators. The issue has also received the backing of France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron, who said she believes uniforms could help reduce social inequality and save time and money for students and parents.
Brigitte Macron, who is a former teacher and met her husband, President Emmanuel Macron, in one of her after-school theatre classes, told Le Parisien newspaper that she was in favour of a “simple but not dull outfit” for students. She recalled wearing a uniform herself for 15 years, a navy blue skirt and sweater, and said she had coped with it well.
“It erases differences, we save time – it’s time-consuming to choose how to dress in the morning – and money, compared to brands,” she said. She also said uniforms could foster a sense of belonging and identity among students, as well as respect for the school institution.
The opposition to uniforms from the education minister and others
However, not everyone shares the first lady’s enthusiasm for uniforms. The education minister, Pap Ndiaye, has said he is against imposing a uniform for all pupils, and that individual schools could decide for themselves if they wanted to adopt one. He said he did not think uniforms would solve the problems of social exclusion, bullying, or religious influence that some proponents of uniforms claim.
“I warn those who think wearing a uniform will magically fix problems, whether they are problems involving brands of accessories or Airpods… Uniforms aren’t going to fix the problem,” he told BFMTV. He also said uniforms could stifle the creativity and individuality of students, and that there was no evidence that they improved academic performance or discipline.
Some left-wing MPs also criticised the first lady for supporting a “backward-looking proposal” that was pushed by the far-right National Rally party, which filed a motion to make uniforms mandatory in parliament. The party’s MP, Roger Chudeau, said uniforms could prevent religious or ethnic clothing from being introduced in schools, and that France’s secular education system was increasingly under attack. He also claimed that two-thirds of French people supported his bill.
The history and current situation of uniforms in France
Uniforms in French schools have not been obligatory since 1968, when they were abolished after the student protests that shook the country. Before that, students wore smocks to protect their clothes from ink stains, but they were phased out with the introduction of ballpoint pens. However, uniforms remain standard in schools in the French Caribbean territories of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana, as well as a handful of military high schools.
In recent years, some schools have experimented with uniforms on a voluntary basis, with mixed results. In 2018, a town near Paris voted to have uniforms for its primary schools, but only about half of the students chose to wear them. In 2020, a school in Marseille introduced uniforms with the colours of the French flag, but faced backlash from some parents and students who said they felt stigmatised or pressured.
The debate on uniforms is likely to continue, as France faces challenges such as social cohesion, integration, and education quality. Brigitte Macron, who has been vocal about the need to find solutions to stop cyberbullying and bullying online, said she hoped the discussion would be respectful and constructive.