I had supper on Saturday with an old friend. She’s a committed French socialist, a schoolteacher in the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, the most impoverished department in France. She’s relatively new to the profession, having decided in her late thirties that teaching was her calling. So she went back to university and upon qualifying she asked to be sent to the most challenging suburb in France.
Earlier this year I accepted her invitation to address her pupils on the subject of writing and journalism. It was a good day out. I went not knowing what to expect but left having met two classes of teenagers who were attentive and appreciative.
My friend has had some difficult moments in class, like every teacher, but in a school where the vast majority of pupils have roots outside France the cohesion is impressive. It’s not hard to understand why.
In France only one language is permitted in the classroom, in contrast to Britain where some schools boast that as many as 38 languages are spoken in their classrooms. France takes the opposite approach: the onus is on pupils to learn French because that is how they will get the most out of their new country and so specially trained teachers give crash courses in French to the new arrivals.
In France religious symbols are not permitted in school and so the conservative Muslim pupil at my friend’s school removes her headscarf at the school gates each morning. Neither she nor her mother have a problem with respecting Republican law.
As of this school year the flag and the words to the national anthem must be displayed in every classroom, a move that was met with no dissent from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the French far-left. He agrees with the reasoning of education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, who in explaining why he introduced the initiative, said: ‘Civic spirit must be strengthened. Everywhere in the world, knowing the symbols of your country is the most natural thing in the world.’
Not in Britain, Monsieur Blanquer. Such a decree would be unconscionable to the left, who see their flag as either a source of shame or of mockery, as Emily Thornberry so memorably demonstrated on twitter.
There lies the towering difference between the French left and their comrades across the Channel. Britain is unique in having a left intelligentsia that despises its culture, history and traditions, a point made by George Orwell in his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn: ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman, and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.’
French socialists, like my friend, diverge economically from the right, but what they share is a pride in their country’s history and culture. My friend told me that there are a couple of young woke teachers in her school but they carry no shame about France’s past and she’s yet to meet a French teacher who believes Hugo, Balzac or Beaumarchais should be cleansed from the curriculum. She laughed in disbelief when I told her of the teaching union in Britain that wants an end to the teaching of the works of ‘dead white men’. It’s the contrary in France, where Blanquer believes the study of classic French literature will enable citizens to share a ‘base of real general culture’.
My friend was keen to quiz me about Jeremy Corbyn because the French media have been largely mute on what a Labour government might mean. There was a scathing piece in Le Figaro two years ago, shortly after the Islamist attack on London Bridge, when Corbyn was described as championing ‘islamo-gauchisme’ but of late there have been precious few hard-nosed analyses of the implications for France of a Corbyn government.
Let me enlighten them. Be afraid, particularly on the question of defence. Last month the veteran reporter Renaud Girard, a former soldier turned eminent war correspondent, wrote on the eve of Boris Johnson’s meeting with Macron that defence must be paramount in their discussions. ‘On the European continent there are only two countries who have the military means and the courage to fight in overseas theatres: France and the UK,’ wrote Girard. ‘Britain is a strategic partner for France. Don’t let the vicissitudes of the European venture harm such an essential partnership.’
That military partnership will be destroyed under Corbyn, a man whose opinion of his country’s armed forces is well-documented and who, according to close adviser Andrew Murray, will slash the defence budget and use the money to ‘tackle the factors causing such a rise in Islamophobia, racism, conflict with communities’.
One assumes Johnson has made this point to the French president, just as one hopes the Prime Minister has hammered home to Macron that the British left is not like the French left: they hate their country as much as they deplore western culture in general.
It’s in Macron’s interest, and his country’s, to do all he can to avoid Corbyn coming to power.