Abstention: how do you get young people to vote?

“How are you going to train students to become voters if they never get to hear about politics in school? “Céline Braconnier, director of the Institute of Political Studies of Saint-Germain-en-Laye has been campaigning for years to push the boundaries. This abstinence specialist is heard very regularly by deputies and senators trying to identify the levers of electoral remobilization.

Every time she says to give the same speech, to list the same shortcomings, the same pitfalls in front of her desk, without ever considering her recommendation number 1: bring politics back to school.

Lack of understanding of electoral issues

“Today the school does not meet the need of young people for understanding: it does not teach them the issues of the elections, nor does it provide them with the keys to decipher the programs of the candidates and therefore does not provide any preparation for the first election experiences. However, we know that the 18-24 generation doesn’t vote until these young people understand what they’re going to vote for. They want to understand the rules of the game first, and when they identify with a candidate or a program, they go to the ballot box. Young people do not vote blindly or compulsoryly, they do not produce sad votes, contrary to what can be observed in other generations”.

To develop an understanding, to analyze and to take a position, however, these are the objectives of moral and civic education, the EMC, created by the law of orientation and programming for the re-establishment of the School of the Republic of July 8, 2013, and established from primary to secondary school at the beginning of the 2015 school year: “it should develop morality and critical thinking and enable the student to learn reflective behaviour. It prepares for the exercise of citizenship and raises awareness of individual and collective responsibility,” we read on the website of the Ministry of Education.

These objectives are still far from being achieved, if we listen to Céline Braconnier, and if we read the Court’s latest report which, as early as October 2021, pointed to the lack of hours devoted to EMC within a “citizen’s course” (one hour per week in primary education and then one hour every two weeks in secondary and secondary schools, ie about 300 hours from CP to Terminale), the lack of teacher training and the lack of material evaluations. Speaking to the press last January, Emmanuel Macron himself said he was in favor of establishing “a new citizenship education”, following the recommendations of the Bronner Commission’s January 2022 report on combating misinformation.

“Breaking the political taboo at school”

The observation is therefore known to everyone and seems to have reached a consensus: from primary to secondary school, civic and moral education plays no role in preparing for the exercise of citizenship. So what to do? More hours, more reviews? Perhaps, but above all: “We will have to break this political taboo at school”, repeats Céline Braconnier, abstinence specialist.

Pupils need to know what is right, what is left, what are the positions supported by La République en Marche or by the National Rally

Géraldine Bozec Lecturer in sociology at the University of the Côte d’Azur

During her field research in 2017, Géraldine Bozec, lecturer in sociology at the Université Côte d’Azur, noted the weight of this ban on French schools: “teachers responsible for moral and civic education, regardless of the class where they teach, primary, secondary or high school, find it uncomfortable to talk about politics Pupils need to know what is right, what is left, what the positions are of La République en Marche, the National Rally, the Republicans or the Socialist Party, what the programs of the political parties, it is essential for them to understand who the actors are, what they are defending, so that they can then position themselves on the political spectrum.But the taboo on politics, the teachers’ fear of breaking the neutrality rule in school, prevents them from tackling the subject concretely: many do not answer the questions of the students.

So there are almost never controversies, confrontations or debates in the classroom, at school, as they engulf political life, from the National Assembly benches to the mobile phone screens. “What they see on television is completely different from the great theoretical principles they learn in school. According to her, the future of citizenship education can only be realistic citizenship education.

The American example

In the United States 25 years ago, an initiative was launched to encourage young people to vote: “kids voting”, a false election every four years, but with real candidates, in voluntary schools in 27 states of the country. For weeks the students are supervised, accompanied by counselors and teachers to guide them, the school also takes into account the family environment by also providing parents with educational materials about the election. In 2020, 350,000 young people voted across the country, from California to Missouri to Utah and Colorado.

A fake but completely real election, which according to the organizers has at least two advantages: in the medium term, it makes these young people want to vote in the real elections, if they are old enough for it, and in the short term, the enthusiasm of the students spreads in families, it provokes discussions, even in certain sections of the population that are not in the habit of voting. According to figures from the organizing committee, the “kids voting” initiative would have made it possible to increase the participation in the last presidential elections by 5%. “It is unthinkable to imagine such an experiment in France,” confirms Céline Braconnier, who had proposed such an experiment in Paris secondary vocational schools during the 2019 European elections. The initiative had never taken place, categorically refused by the Ministry of Education, she said, which had vetoed it.

Promoting Youth Engagement

Talking about politics in school naturally raises many questions: how to talk about it? who needs to talk about it? Should we train teachers, give them tools, manuals, diagrams or should other professionals take care of it? “We could also create engagement modules”, suggests Géraldine Bozec, “civic experiences over several months, for example in an association, which would be evaluated and integrated into the training of the pupils, it would also be a way to increase the involvement of young people, which is very rare in France.On the contrary, in Anglo-Saxon countries the grading system, school programs or activities outside the classroom tend to value the art of debating, taking points of view and critical thinking.

In France, according to specialists, the desire is there, young people want to talk about politics, in primary, secondary and secondary school, they want to tackle issues of inequality and environmental issues in the classroom. “If the school gives the pupils knowledge, it can reduce social inequalities”, emphasizes Céline Braconnier, “to ensure that we do not lose some pupils along the way and to keep as many people as possible in our democracy, c. school that we will have to act”.

The Religion of the “Republican Ideal”

In his book “The Unfinished Nation, Young People Facing School and the Police” (Editions Grasset, January 2022, Sebastian Roché lists the multiple attempts of politicians for years to create a sort of perfect citizen. “The state has always given the mission Since the Third Republic, the state apparatus has tried to shape their nation, build the sense of belonging that will bring young people into a political system. For decades, political decision-makers have been trying to do this through symbols. Eric Ciotti ensuring that “France is loved from an early age”, the LR deputy then proposes that the French flag and the words of La Marseillaise be made compulsory in all classes, from kindergarten to high school. Other deputies propose to raise the flag and that the students sing the national anthem once a week.In 2003 under Jacques Chirac a law for domestic transport was passed security created “offensive national symbols”. In 2013, under François Hollande, a charter of secularism in schools was born. “We are in a religion of the republican ideal,” notes Sebastian Roché, “we think exposure to symbols will elicit republican support, we confuse cause and effect.”

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