By Camille BOBLET-LEDOYEN
ON 9th of January 2024, Gabriel Attal took over from the resigned Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, becoming the youngest Prime Minister in modern French political history at the age of 34. His political journey includes roles such as Secretary of State for the Minister of National Education and Youth, Government Spokesperson, Minister Delegate for Public Accounts, and Minister of National Education and Youth. Known for his steadfast loyalty to President Emmanuel Macron, Attal’s ascent began during Macron’s first presidential campaign in 2017. Prior to his government position, he served as the spokesperson for the presidential party ‘La République en Marche’ from 2016 to 2018. Despite this, Attal’s background as a technocrat reveals a departure from France’s previous educational policies.
In his inaugural speech, Attal emphasized the pivotal role of education in his governance: “I bring the cause of education with me here to Matignon (the seat of the French government). I reaffirm education as the cornerstone of our priorities, committing to provide all necessary means for its success as Prime Minister.” In France, government actions closely align with the President’s directives, and Macron’s New Year wishes had hinted at a 2024 educational policy focused on restoring student levels, teacher authority, and the strength of secular and republican teaching. Macron called for a “civic rearmament” (réarmement civique) emphasizing the importance of France’s culture, History, language, and universal values from an early age. This sets the stage for a new educational policy led by Gabriel Attal, marked by a conservative and reactionary approach, departing from the tradition of intellectual emancipation.
Education holds a central place in French politics, reflected in its substantial budget allocation. The significance given to education is tied to the construction of French republican identity. While historically, French teachers held influential positions, Attal’s vision shifts towards a didactic model, prioritizing basic skills over intellectual emancipation. His appointment signifies a conservative and reactionary offensive, aiming to instill notions of order and authority in a perceived insolent and uncultured youth. The crisis in the French education system, driven by budgetary constraints and a shortage of resources, is met with a call for order, discipline, and a quasi-military approach.
In France, the issue of education and national education is a central political question, making it one of the most significant and powerful non-sovereign ministries due to the budget allocated to educational policies. The importance given to education in the country is closely linked to the construction of French republican identity. French teachers historically held influential positions in the cities where they taught. The school is seen as a place of intellectual emancipation, where the valeurs de la République (literally the “values of the Republic”) are learned, and citizenship and secularism are taught. The modern French Nation-State has historically centered around the school, with the teacher playing a crucial role in shaping the republican French identity. By the end of the 19th century, when education in France became widespread, free, and mandatory, teachers were officially tasked with promoting intellectual emancipation and instilling values aligned with the republican regime. The principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity were made possible through national education and the efforts of teachers. The appointment of Gabriel Attal, a young technocrat in his thirties who has previously held significant positions in the Ministry of National Education, symbolizes much for Emmanuel Macron. This nomination reveals the president’s intent to reshape the history of education in France and discipline French schoolchildren. Macron aims to replace the values of freedom (of speech, thought), equality (the right to emancipation), and fraternity (collective work) with notions of order and discipline based solely on individual merit. This reflects the belief that not all individuals are entitled to the same level of emancipation. The new government aims not to encourage intellectual emancipation but rather the learning of basic skills (i.e., reading, writing, counting, respecting others); a school of order and respect rather than a school that teaches critical thinking.
Therefore, Gabriel Attal’s appointment as the Head of the Government represents a conservative and reactionary offensive, aiming to instill notions of order and authority in a youth perceived as insolent, uncultured, and incapable. The crisis facing the French school system is a reality due to budgetary constraints, lack of infrastructure, and a shortage of teaching staff. However, the new government responds to this crisis with calls for order, blind obedience, and strict, almost military, discipline. Gabriel Attal advocates a reactionary vision of society, where youth should be tamed rather than emancipated. Independent thinking is considered dangerous by a reactionary power. As Secretary of State for the Minister of National Education and Youth, he supported the militarization of youth with the creation of the Universal National Service, reminiscent of both scouting and military service. The Universal National Service he championed ended up combining the least appealing elements of scouting and military service for schoolchildren: arbitrary discipline, flag-raising rituals, and cross-country running in the woods. As Minister of National Education and Youth, he prohibited the wearing of abbayas and qamis in educational institutions. He used the argument of secularism (in France, schools must be secular, and the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols is prohibited) to deliberately and disproportionately target female Muslim students. He gained attention for emphasizing announcements, such as solemnly announcing the reinstatement of mathematics courses in high schools, even though it was his predecessor, whom he had advised, who had removed them. When the 2022 PISA rankings were released, he praised the so-called “Singaporean” learning method and aimed to extend it to all educational institutions in France, despite its existing presence. This pedagogical approach, based on the “Concrete-Imaginary-Abstract” method, is not unfamiliar to French teachers. However, its widespread implementation requires substantial financial resources and, more importantly, significantly higher teacher training than is currently provided. As a minister, Attal only implemented the promotion of textbooks favoring the “concrete-imaginary-abstract” method and lowered the entry level for teaching exams to a bachelor’s degree instead of a master’s degree. While he was minister, teacher job cuts persisted, and on average, it takes 27.6 days to fill a teaching position out of the 3,100 vacancies – a timeframe unseen since the early 2000s. Nevertheless, Minister Attal persisted in grandstanding, advocating for a “shock of knowledge” (chocs des savoirs) and asserting that all absent teachers would be systematically replaced. Attal’s announcements were mere rhetoric, and no concrete measures were ultimately implemented to genuinely improve the performance of French students. The most noteworthy and concerning aspect is the establishment of academic-level-based working groups at the secondary school level. Initiating work groups based on academic levels not only reinforces but also worsens school segregation. Sorting students into groups according to their academic performance essentially means sidelining those who are less academically proficient. Although this reform has been announced but not yet put into practice, with Gabriel Attal now serving as Prime Minister, the implementation of school segregation seems inevitable.
Attal’s background, hailing from an affluent segment of French society, attending a private school, and lacking direct experience in public schools, raises questions about his suitability for leading educational policy. Attal comes from one of the wealthiest segments of the French population, growing up in the upscale 6th arrondissement of Paris, in an affluent family of notables, becoming a millionaire at the age of twenty upon his father’s death. Attal attended the highly selective Ecole Alsacienne, a private school where he completed his entire education. He served as Secretary to the Minister of National Education and Youth and later as Minister of National Education without ever setting foot in a public school. Now, as the head of the government, he prioritizes education. While receiving a private education does not preclude one from working at the Ministry of Public Education, never having shown interest in the subject before and lacking any competence in educational policy is undeniably a handicap, if not a problem. Attal has never truly worked; he only completed a six-month internship at the prestigious Villa Médicis – the French School of Rome – after earning a lackluster master’s degree through remedial exams before joining ministerial cabinets and Macron’s campaign. He is primarily a technocrat without talent, except for his innate and real abilities to court the powerful. Macron’s priority was to replace his Prime Minister with a shallow and unremarkable technocrat, essentially someone who would not overshadow him. Attal is infinitely loyal to President Macron; to whom he owes his entire political career.
As the youngest Prime Minister in contemporary French history, Gabriel Attal’s appointment strengthens Macron’s influence on the government. Macron’s authoritarian approach aims to accelerate a “civic rearmament”, reinforcing discipline and order in schools. Attal’s role as Prime Minister signals a continuation of his superficial measures and an educational policy that leans towards a more conservative and authoritarian direction. The France envisioned by Macron and shaped by Attal prioritizes a workforce of educated yet docile individuals, rather than fostering intellectual emancipation. Attal’s goals are to shape disciplined workers, not strikers; precarious workers, not emancipated ones. To shape a class that remains docile.