Jules Ferry, founding father of public and secular schools

Jules Ferry, founding father of public and secular schools

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Jules Ferry was is a French politician of the Third Republic, favorable to the republican ideas inherited from the French Revolution. In 1870, the Third Republic was proclaimed and Jules Ferry therefore held important ministerial positions. He passed several laws that strengthen public freedoms, but his most famous reforms were in the field of education. Passed between 1879 and 1882, the Jules Ferry school laws establish free education, secularism (religion no longer intervenes in education) and compulsory primary education from 6 to 13 years old.

Jules Ferry, a secular republican

Born in Saint-Dié in 1832, Jules Ferry began a career as a lawyer before being elected deputy and then mayor of Paris in 1870. Opposed to the town, he earned the unenviable nickname of Ferry-La-Famine. Fervent support of the young Third Republic, he became Minister of Public Instruction in the Waddington and Freycinet ministries, then President of the Council from September 23, 1880. Jules Ferry played an essential role during these years when the Republicans were going to be able to apply the major principles they had inherited from the French Revolution.

Faithful to this spirit, Jules Ferry set about giving the state secular structures and fought against clericalism to deprive the Church of her power in society. Several laws secularized French customs, such as the one which authorized work on Sundays and Catholic holidays and the one which suppressed the denominational character of cemeteries. The struggle against clericalism, called for by Gambetta in his 1877 speech, was in the spotlight and, a sign of the times, it was the same year that the word "anticlerical" appeared in the Littré dictionary.

Jules Ferry's school reforms

It was in the field of education that Jules Ferry focused most of his efforts. He first reformed the Superior Council of Public Instruction, from which he excluded all personalities foreign to education, which amounted to excluding representatives of the clergy. Then he attacked higher education by tabling in March 1879 a project to suppress the law of 1875 which had instituted the freedom of higher education and had granted to mixed juries, including members of private education , the right to confer university degrees. Jules Ferry's project would hardly have aroused passions if it had not contained an article 7 which targeted religious congregations: “No one is allowed to direct a public or private educational establishment, of any order. or to teach therein, if he belongs to an unauthorized congregation. This article concerned about 500 congregations, but, as Jules Ferry was not afraid to assert it loudly, one of them was particularly targeted, that of the Jesuits, "prohibited by all our history".

Article 7 aroused considerable emotion in France. While the Republicans and the Education League, founded in 1866 by Jean Macé, rejoiced at the blow struck at the congregations, the Catholics gathered in a Religious Defense Committee which organized a lion manifesto against Jules Ferry, described as " new Nero ”. However, in July 1879, the law was passed by the Chamber of Deputies, but it had to be ratified by the Senate. This last corn carried many opponents of the law, to which had joined the old Jules Simon who considered article 7 "useless, dangerous, impolitic". On March 9, 1880, the senators, by 148 votes to 127, rejected article 7.

In the Senate ballot, the government responded by taking two secrets, the first of which ordered the Jesuits to disperse within three months and the second invited unauthorized congregations to come into order within the same period. The application of these decrees was not without difficulty. Many soldiers and magistrates preferred to resign from their offices rather than direct the operations to expel the congregations, some of which could only be done at the cost of the siege of the monasteries. More than 250 convents were closed and around 5,000 religious expelled.

Secular school, free and compulsory

To tear the little French people from Ignorance and from the grip of the Church, such was the will of Jules Ferry and the team of men who, with him, tackled the reorganization of education, Ferdinand Buisson, Jean Macé, Camille Sée and Paul Bert. For the Republicans, in fact, any social progress had to pass through the generalization of education for all children. The school became the leaven of patriotism and made it possible to fight against the "obscurantism" of the Church. Secular education, free and compulsory, such was the principle which dictated the laws granting all children the right to education.

Passed on December 21, 1880, at the instigation of deputy Camille Sée, a law established high schools for young girls. Under the Second Empire, Victor Duruy had tried without much success to create secondary courses for girls. "To give Republican companions to Republican men," Jules Ferry opened secular secondary education to girls. It was a great revolution in manners, so deeply was the habit, even among free-thinkers, of entrusting girls to religious schools. To train the teachers of these new female high schools, a female aggregation was created as well as the Sèvres Normal Higher School.

The "cornerstone" of Jules Ferry's plans was to transform primary education, and he was supported in this by Jean Macé's Education League, which strongly advocated free education. A commission chaired by Paul Bert, assisted by three men from liberal Protestantism, Ferdinand Buisson, Théodore Steeg and Félix Pécaut, took on the task of building the new primary school. They would have liked to impose the principles of gratuity, obligation and secularism all at once, but Jules Ferry preferred to have these reforms adopted gradually.

On June 16, 1881, the first law deciding free primary education was passed. Then Ferry filed a second bill requiring all children between the ages of six and thirteen to attend school. Total secularization was not yet decided, but religious instruction was replaced by civic instruction. This second law met strong resistance from the right and was not passed until March 1882. These laws consolidated the literacy and education movement in France. Jules Ferry's successors continued his work: in 1886 the law was passed securing primary teachers.

The legacy of Jules Ferry

The generation of teachers known as "Republic hussars" is that of Jules Ferry. Their work with generations of schoolchildren at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is playing the key role he expected. It popularizes and strengthens the republican spirit from below. It cements the pillar role that education retains today in representing the republican and egalitarian state.

Emblematic figure of the Third Republic, Ferry was one of the first to impose with force and by law a republican ideal nourished at the source of positivism, the mixed spirit of the Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789. For him, the spirit Republican can only flourish on two conditions. First and on the domestic level: the affirmation of modern citizenship through access for all to culture, to knowledge; by the inalienable right of freedom of expression. In the second place and on the external level: a policy of greatness and national prestige. During his second ministry, he pursued an aggressive colonial policy that was not very "enlightened", although in tune with the times. It will cause its fall in 1885 after a setback in Tonkin.

A man turned towards progress, science, equality, a man marked by his anticlericalism as much as by the rejection of the excesses of the far left, Ferry is in this capacity one of the main representatives of the progressive, liberal, democratic republican spirit. and optimistic of the end of the 19th century.

For further

- Jules Ferry, biography of Jean-Michel Gaillard. Fayard, 1989.

- Jules Ferry, this unknown, biography of Éric Fromant. Editions L'Harmattan, 2018.

- History of secularism in France, by Jean Baubérot. "What do I know? », 2017.

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