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Integrating French Education: The French Response to the European Union’s Education Policies

The 1992 Treaty of Maastricht contained several European Union educational initiatives aimed at restructuring higher education in the participating countries as a means of increasing student mobility among nations and creating a more effective work force. Despite their adhesion to the treaty, the French are uneasy about initiatives that compromise national interests. European educational policies are no exception. The insertion of European policies into French higher education has generated a unique French response designed to limit scrutiny from Brussels and curtail the effects of EU intrusions on the French system, while still reaping the benefits of mobility and integration. This approach has been only partially successful. Despite developing an effective, centralized policymaking process to formulate and implement France’s responses to policies from Brussels, the French education system is slowly, but fitfully, adapting to EU-wide education initiatives.

What’s in a Name?

The role of the nation-state in European education is often said to have originated with Erasmus, the sixteenth-century Dutch humanist, who questioned the role of ecclesiastical universalism in shaping national systems of education. Refusing to enter into the religious disputes of the Reformation, Erasmus believed that education should contribute to a learned tolerance that would engender international peace and unity. To this end, he advocated state organization of educational systems, declaring, “It [education] is a task for the public authorities, just like, for example, the maintenance of an army.” Erasmus transformed the universalistic principles of education into international, secular constructs, while arguing for state intervention to implement his cosmopolitan precepts—a practice not unlike the European Union’s current goals for educational policy. However, Erasmus also believed that the state was the best manager of educational policy, rather than a supranational entity that would countermand national decisions.

During the nineteenth century, French higher education became directly associated with the State and the civil service became the conduit for many of its graduates. It was during this period that Napoleon seized control of education from the Catholic Church and, as a result, solidified the national character of French education. By centralizing education through nationalistic principles, Napoleon duplicated practices the Church had used to maintain power for centuries and his educational legacy remains significant in France today.

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