By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 11, 2009
TOULOUSE, France, July 10 -- Alain Refalo, a veteran elementary schoolteacher in this luxuriant corner of southwestern France, decided enough was enough.
In a defiant letter to local authorities, he refused to carry out a new Education Ministry rule mandating extra classroom work for slow learners because, in his view, it would overtax his young charges. Worse, he explained in an interview, the orders from Paris seemed to be part of a trend inching French schools away from some of their most cherished ideals, making them resemble something in England or even America.
"I told myself I could not do things that were against my conscience," Refalo said.
For his defiance, Refalo, 45, spent eight hours Thursday before a ministry disciplinary council here, risking demotion or suspension in a punishment that officials said would be handed down in a few days. But he was not alone. Since Refalo wrote his letter Nov. 6, more than 2,800 French schoolteachers have issued similar declarations; they have become what they describe as an unprecedented civil disobedience movement against the ministry's efforts to change some of the ways French elementary school students are taught.
The revolt, although involving a minuscule proportion of the country's 350,000 such educators, has dramatized anew how deeply France cherishes its traditions and how ready its people are to resist what they see as attacks on a way of life and a set of ideals that they know and trust. The issue has become particularly sensitive since the rise to power of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was elected in May 2007 on a pledge to break with the past and push French society into a globalized 21st century.
As the teachers saw it, at stake in Toulouse was a concept of universal public schooling that has informed what happens in French classrooms ever since it was defined by Jules Ferry, an education minister in the late 19th century. Basically, it established that elementary schools should be government-run, free for anybody and ready to teach the same thing at the same time, so children everywhere across France have an equal chance at success.
Concern that those ideals might be compromised inspired widespread opposition to several other education reforms proposed last year by Sarkozy's business-oriented government. The opposition, from students and professors alike, generated fears of turmoil in the streets and forced Sarkozy to pull back plans for changes in secondary schools last winter, then in universities in the spring.
Undaunted, Sarkozy replaced his education and higher education ministers in a recent government shakeup and vowed to push ahead. But the message from teachers and students was clear -- so clear that Sarkozy the reformer, elected on a promise of rupture with tradition, two weeks ago praised the merits of the "French model" in a speech at Versailles Palace marked by monarchical trappings from the time of Louis XIV.
Sarkozy's plan to relax the ban against work on Sunday has encountered similar resistance. Many French have refused to contemplate giving up the long-held tradition that Sunday is for family, long lunches and afternoon strolls, even if it means earning less money.
Against that background, Mayor Pierre Cohen of Toulouse, who also is a member of parliament from the opposition Socialist Party, joined several hundred teachers and parents in a demonstration Thursday to support Refalo. Cohen, to cheers from an appreciative crowd, said the attempt to punish Refalo was part of a general campaign waged by Sarkozy against French public servants and the long-standing tradition of heavy government involvement in the society.
"The republic as we know it, is in danger," agreed Martin Malvy, president of the regional council and a fellow Socialist who also showed up to offer Refalo his support.
Refalo, a slight man with a boyish face and swept-back hair, has taught for years at Jules Ferry Elementary School in the Toulouse suburb of Colomiers. He opposes a new rule instituted last fall calling on teachers to do two hours a week of remedial work with failing students, declaring that youngsters cannot work fruitfully after a six-hour classroom day. Moreover, he pointed out, the ministry had just announced budget cuts in which 3,000 special education teachers were being eliminated -- and whose jobs were to help students in difficulty.
The planned layoffs were part of a program set in motion by Sarkozy in which only one of every two civil servants who resigns is replaced, an effort to reduce the burdensomely high number of government employees. The Education Ministry announced that the jobs of 16,000 teachers and other national school system employees would be eliminated over the next school year.
But running beneath the specific complaint, Refalo said, was a general impression that the ideals of good citizenship in French education as laid down by Ferry were being eroded. Ideas such as competition, individualist thinking, privatization and survival of the fittest were being introduced, he asserted, ushering French youngsters toward a set of principles resembling those of England or the United States.
"This government applies to schools the good old recipes of a market economy," he said to supporters this month. "We are witnessing with our own eyes a creeping privatization of public schools. But there is something much more important and even more revolting; it is the change in values imposed by this liberal ideology."
Instead of doing remedial work, Refalo used the extra time to organize theater workshops, with an eye to encouraging his 10-year-old pupils to express themselves and to delve into literature. He published his letter and several other declarations on an Internet site called "pedagogical resistance."
After several visits from ministry inspectors, he was formally accused of disobedience, violating confidentiality, inciting disobedience and publicly attacking an Education Ministry official in his writings.
Local teachers unions, while avoiding endorsing Refalo's civil disobedience, have urged the ministry not to punish him, as have several nationally known education figures. But the new education minister, Luc Chatel, made it clear he would maintain his predecessor's determination to put the rebel through disciplinary procedures. "Disobedience seems to me not very compatible with the job of teacher," Chatel said in a radio interview. "He incarnates authority, so there would be a real paradox if he didn't apply his own rules."
But three prominent members of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II issued an open letter this month supporting Refalo and reminding the government that heeding authority is not always the best solution. "We wish to bear witness that there are moments in the life of a man when it is an imperious necessity to assume his convictions and share them with others," said Raymond Aubrac, Walter Bassan and Stephane Hessel.