On a pleasant spring evening, at about 7:00, I was walking back to my flat in Paris when I heard the sound of chanting and tambourines being struck in unison. Some of the chanting was unmistakably that of young children, though it was mixed with that of adults.
It came from a political demonstration against a law proposed by the Minister of Education. The proposed law sounded mostly uncontroversial: the age at which children must go to school was to be lowered to three years, but since nearly 97 percent of them do so anyway, this hardly represented a vastly increased burden on the education system. Other proposed changes also sounded less than earth-shattering, though they seemed to be directed toward reducing the influence of teachers’ unions in an extremely centralized system.
Children as young as six and eight held up placards saying that they demanded schools in which there was freedom of thought or that commercialism should be kept out of education. Children are precocious these days, but are they really able, at age six or eight, to argue for freedom of thought or against the entry of market forces into education?
A teacher handed me a flyer that said, “To put an end to this proposed law, parents and school staff are organizing to lead the combat.” No mention was made of the children, who made up half the crowd. I wanted to ask the teacher whether she thought it right to use children in this way: to make them shout slogans and wave banners. They do this kind of thing in North Korea—but in France?
No doubt she would have replied that the end justified the means, and that the children’s future (not, say, the teachers’ self-interest) was at stake. And of course, because it was evening, the parents must have accompanied their children, or given their consent for them to be there. I learned from the flyer that the demonstration had started at 4:30; the children had been at it for two and a half hours.
The flyer also said that while teachers’ strikes were the main weapon in the struggle, certain “punches” were also necessary for voices against the law to be heard. A picture showed parents and teachers occupying a headmistress’s office at a primary school. On the following Sunday, there was to be a picnic against the law. Dress code: all in red and black, the flyer instructed—the colors of anarchism, and of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutionaries, and of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier of Haiti. What kind of freedom of thought in schools were these people agitating for?
What most troubled me was the use that the organizers made of children, irrespective of the merits or non-merits of their cause. Sanctifying the opinions of the young—who are easily manipulated by adults—is an international phenomenon now. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden made global headlines when she announced that she would stage a school strike to demand action over climate change. Tens of thousands of children in 125 countries participated in a walkout from school, demanding—what, exactly? In California, a group of ten-year-olds confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein, asking her to sign up to the Green New Deal. Taken aback by her skepticism, the children sputtered about the imminent end of the world, until their adult minder stepped in to salvage the photo-op.
Child soldiers have recently been used on a large scale in Africa and the Middle East, fighting for causes they cannot possibly have understood. In Paris, the demonstrators’ self-righteousness was patent: they did not stop for a moment to consider whether it was right to put slogans into the mouths of young children and make them wave political placards for hours, thereby turning them into political instruments. It was a painful reminder of the continuing attractions of authoritarian democracy.
Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images