The longstanding image of the French school as an engine of national unity, egalitarian democracy and republican citizenship is, in the postcolonial era, faltering. Students from working class and/or non-European immigrant backgrounds struggle in a school system that, despite its egalitarian claims, favours students from wealthier families of European descent. The former thus feel excluded from full participation in French society. Such academic inequality casts doubt on the viability of republican universalism, a pillar of French schooling that treats students as autonomous rational actors and resists adjusting the curriculum to cultural particularities. Rooted in the Enlightenment rationalism of the Revolutionary period, this universalist doctrine views the school as a sanctuary where the student develops her or his intellectual faculties in an environment protected from the influence of outside opinion emanating from family, religion, or cultural particularities. Contemporary debates about the integration of France’s multicultural student population thus challenge the very philosophical foundations of French republicanism.
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