France will use ‘empathy lessons’ to tackle bullying in schools

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne gives a press conference to present a plan aim at tackling bullying at school at Matignon Hotel in Paris
The French prime minister has announced 'a 'general mobilisation' against bullying behaviour - Julien De Rosa/AFP

France on Wednesday unveiled an ambitious plan to tackle bullying in schools via Danish-style “empathy lessons” and social media bans.

Elisabeth Borne, the French prime minister, said that cracking down on bullying, which concerns “two pupils per class and more than a million over the past three years”, was an “absolute priority”.

The push will see special “anti-bully brigades” created and a “systematic” referral of complaints to prosecutors.

It will be guided by the principle of ”100 per cent prevention, 100 per cent detection, 100 per cent solutions”, Ms Borne said.

‘Unbearable, unacceptable’

Under the plan, judges will be able to “permanently” confiscate mobile phones from bullies and “exclude them from social networks” for six months in serious cases, said Eric Dupond-Moretti, the justice minister.

The practicalities would be thrashed out in parliament in debates over a new digital safety law, said Ms Borne.

Announcing what she called a “general mobilisation” against the scourge of bullying, the prime minister started her speech by speaking directly to victims.

“You aren’t responsible for what you are going through, which is unbearable, unacceptable,” she told them. “No adult would bear such bullying.”

‘Inscribed into the curriculum’

Among a raft of measures, Ms Borne said that starting from the age of 8 to 9, schoolchildren would fill in self-assessment forms informing teachers whether they had been bullied or not in order to “detect cases … and intervene swiftly”.

A special helpline and a dedicated smartphone app would be launched to receive alerts, while teachers, assistants and sports instructors would receive anti-bullying training.

“Referral to the prosecutor will now be systematic in the event of a report of harassment, in particular thanks to a dedicated platform between national education and justice,” she said.

Gabriel Attal, the education minister, also said that “empathy classes” boosting mutual respect and emotional intelligence would be “inscribed into the curriculum” and rolled out starting next year in primary schools along the lines of those employed in Nordic countries, “notably Denmark”.

In part thanks to these classes, Denmark boasts some of the lowest bullying rates in Europe with just 5 per cent of 11-year-olds saying they have been picked on.

Denmark empathy classes
Denmark empathy classes

Each local French education authority would create a “dedicated bullying brigade”, Mr Attal added, saying this would be a team of “several dedicated people 100 per cent trained on the issue of harassment”.

These would then be dispatched to schools experiencing problems “to resolve a certain number of situations,” he said.

“A collective electric shock” was required so that “fear and shame change sides”, said Mr Attal.

“Every pupil in France has the right to happiness. Less bullying means more happiness,” he said.

Recent controversies

The French government was stung into action after the recent high-profile suicide of a 13-year-old girl in the Calais region. After her death, Pap Ndiaye, the then education minister, met the girl’s parents who said they were “disappointed” with his reaction.

It took a visit from Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady and a former teacher, as well as a government pledge to launch a major anti-bullying plan for them to say they had finally been “heard”.

Another recent suicide in Poissy, near Paris, prompted Ms Borne to concede that there had been “mistakes” in the way the head teacher and local education authority had responded to the parents’ pleas for help beforehand. Mrs Macron visited the parents of the victim in this incident also.

The French government had already started toughening its stance against bullies before the latest plan. In August, it introduced new rules whereby schools can now force bullies to change schools rather than victims moving.

After bullying became prominent in headlines over the past month, a platform for pupils to report abuse has been hit by a “tidal wave” of testimonies, said Mr Attal, adding that the number had tripled compared to last year.

MPs were recently moved by testimony from Virgine Lanlo, an MP from Mr Macron’s Renaissance group, who told parliament: “I would like to read to you a letter a young girl, now a woman, recently wrote to her former classmate.

“‘For years, I suffered from you bullying, humiliating and molesting me. Your acts ruined my childhood and adolescence. I was able to recover and build a wonderful family. But never will I forget these hours of suffering and distress,” she read, before adding: “That young girl was me.”

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