France’s mandatory teen service program draws serious religious freedom concerns

Emmanuel Macron Credit Frederic Legrand COMEO Shutterstock CNA Emmanuel Macron. | Frederic Legrand COMEO/Shutterstock.

France's soon-to-be mandatory Universal National Service program for teens has drawn serious religious freedom concerns, with critics noting that the program prohibits religious symbols, does not allow conscripts to leave for religious services, and fails to accommodate religious dietary restrictions.

Marc Guidoni, a veteran trainer for the Values of the Republic and Secularism Plan, told the French Catholic newspaper La Vie that the program rules appear to be more extensive than French law requires or allows. He suggested that abstaining from any show of belief is usually required only for civil servants and public servants. Applying this to conscripted teens, he said, is "a strong obstacle to liberty."

A June 24 article in the French newspaper La Vie suggested that the National Universal Service's rules mean young believers are "forgotten." Some program participants will want to exercise their freedom of worship, even in a framework that tends to erase religious difference, it said.

A pilot program of the national civic service began in mid-June with 2,000 teen volunteer participants aged 15 or 16, including high school students, drop-outs and trainees at vocational schools. In mid-June the volunteers left their home regions for service centers at boarding schools, holiday villages and university campuses.

They received training in first aid, emergency response, map reading and other basic skills. They will later volunteer for two weeks of service with a charity or local government.

The national service centers have five houses of 10 young people each, with each center under the management of a "brigade chief." Each house has an adult supervisor but teens are responsible for tasks and household chores.

They are required to wear French navy uniforms and sing France's national anthem, the "Marseillaise," every morning. After training in emergency response, the pilot groups were to respond to simulated disasters such as a major traffic accident or a nuclear accident.

Both supervisors and young people in the program are forbidden from displaying religious signs except in private rooms, La Vie said, citing a source at the Ministry of National Education.

Furthermore, young people will not be released for religious services.

"To maintain cohesion, and respect the commitment they made, leaving the site will not be allowed during these two weeks," a source at the Ministry of Education told La Vie magazine.

A common "interreligious" room will be provided, but only for individual reflection and not collective worship. Normally only one room will be at each service center, though this could change on a case-by-case basis.

Guidoni objected that worship is not "individual meditation in a common space" but a "collective practice." The interreligious room is "not compatible with the opportunity to worship collectively," he said.

Emmanuel Macron during his 2017 presidential campaign had proposed a one-month mandatory national service, saying young people should have "a direct experience of military life."

The French military did not welcome such an effort, and Macron's government responded with an alternative plan for compulsory civic service, France 24 reports.

Macron has promoted the plan on the grounds that it fosters social cohesion and patriotism to combat political, economic and religious divisions. The program will give young people "causes to defend" and "battles to fight in the social, environmental and cultural domains," he predicted.

Cell phone use is also restricted to one hour of free time in the evenings, a rule intended to encourage engagement between the participants.

Gabriel Attal, secretary of state to the minister of national education, said that after dinner the program participants will debate social issues.

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"For example, discrimination based on sexual orientation and disability or radicalization," Attal told the newspaper Le Parisien. After the French women's soccer game, he said, there was "a discussion of gender equality."

Attal stressed the need to give new experiences to young people and get them away from habitual surroundings, including their familial and social surroundings.

A source near Attal told La Vie that there will be no accommodation for religious dietary needs, though leaders will ensure "a balanced diet."

"If you do not want meat, you can take a double serving of lentils," the source said.

"The diets of the so-called religious are thus forced to give way to republican conformism," commented La Vie.

Guidoni said that in his view, French law permits much more than is allowed under the rules of the compulsory civic service.

"With the exception of freedom of conscience, the rest of the constitutional framework relating to secularism does not seem to be respected," he commented. "The citizen is free to express his opinions--including religious ones--as long as this does not disturb the functioning of public order."

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He said that no consideration was given to the idea of having chaplains for the service centers.

Over the next seven years, the compulsory program is set to become mandatory for all French youth age 15-16, who will number about 800,000 per year. The live-in section of the pilot program cost about $2,275 per person, which could mean an eventual cost of $1.8 billion per year.

At present, all French citizens must take part in a one-day Defense and Citizenship course after turning 18 years old. The course includes presentations from the French military and a test on the French language.

In 1997, French leaders abolished the traditional 10 months of compulsory military service for young men.

Student groups were also among the critics of Macron's new civic service program.

"We share the government's concerns about the lack of social integration but we think that universal national service is not the right response," Orlane François of the umbrella group the FAGE student union, told Agence France Presse. "Two weeks in barracks would appeal to some segment of the population nostalgic for military service, but not the young people who are our primary concern."

Before the present plan was announced, 14 youth organizations criticized the compulsory plan and the lack of freedom to choose a commitment, BBC News reports. A YouGov poll in March suggested about 60 percent of French people backed the plan.

France has historically witnessed conflict between Catholics and secular forms of republican government. The arrival of many Muslim migrants has led to different tensions and responses, including strong legal bans on religious headwear like the hijab.

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