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French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal rolls out program to curb youth violence amid string of attacks

On the request of President Emmanuel Macron, Attal announced an eight-week consultation into youth violence and the reimplementation of “a surge of authority” in schools.

MARSEILLE, France (CN) — French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal is rolling out a program to stem youth violence in schools amid a growing number of attacks that have left some teenagers dead.

French schools recently have grappled with terrorist threats and last week a knife attack indirectly led to one teenager's death by heart attack, however these particular measures will be directed at violence perpetrated by students.

Earlier this month, a 13-year-old girl was temporarily in a coma after she was beaten near her school in Montpellier — and a 15-year-old boy died after being attacked in Viry-Châtillon, a town that saw another severe beating just two days after his death.

Attal, the onetime education minister who has discussed being bullied during his middle-school years, is taking a seemingly tough stance on the issue. He has proposed to enact various measures and conduct investigations over the next few weeks as part of the program, known in French as a consultation.

The initial request for the consultation came from French President Emmanuel Macron.

Measures proposed so far include keeping middle schoolers in class from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., enrolling disruptive students in disciplinary boarding schools during school breaks and reevaluating the minority excuse, a legal clause that softens sentences for children under 18 — a right some legal experts say is protected by the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

On Wednesday the far-right mayor of Beziers, a town in southern France, announced that children under 13 in three neighborhoods would have a curfew between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. until September 30.

Despite the new propositions, one shopkeeper in central Marseille — who is also the mother of a 13-year-old girl who was harassed in elementary school — wasn’t convinced. She said there has been a misalignment generally between talk and action.

“The harassers have to be more severely punished,” Sylvana, who preferred to go by her first name, told Courthouse News. “There are always a lot of announcements, and nothing is put into place. … They’ve been letting the education system go for a long time.”

Experts argue that these problems stem from more deeply rooted issues, like a lack of social support and the rise of social media, that contribute ultimately to a rejection of authority of the French state and its institutions.

An overarching theme of the measures is to reestablish authority in schools, with consequences for students that challenge or degrade authority figures like teachers.

“This violence is external signs of much older problems which were not dealt with 20 or 30 years ago,” Luc Rouban, a director of research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, told Courthouse News.

“There were rare cases of violence before, but we did not have such a systematic dimension, a multiplication of acts of violence like the one we are seeing now.

The bottom line is that respect for institutions is disappearing.”

Rouban argues that most of the perpetrators of violence in these schools come from unhappy, underprivileged families, and sometimes immigrant families that haven’t been given the tools to properly integrate. Then, at the social level, young people sometimes need to play into violence and provocation to prove themselves and be included.

There are also students who are isolated and lost, eventually sliding into violence. While school used to be a place of disciplinary action, Rouban said the gradual weakening of French institutions from a disciplinary standpoint has played a role in students acting out.

Sylvie Condette, one of the three experts who worked to develop the official PHARE program, an anti-harassment and bullying initiative implemented by the government throughout 2022 and 2023, argues instead that bullies tend to be part of the group at school.

“Harassing students are rarely dropouts; they are even rather well integrated socially, they want to be 'popular,"'and impose a system of domination on other students,” Condette told Courthouse News by email.

The government initially launched the program in 2021 to train both adults and students to recognize and fight harassment. Student ambassadors learn how to identify isolated peers and talk to them, and to report instances of harassment to adults.

“The program is producing results," Condette said, "even if at the same time the number of reports of harassment is increasing.”

The issue continued to attract national attention last June, after a 13-year-old girl committed suicide in northern France following harassment at school. Pap Ndiaye, the education minister before Attal, spoke of a “collective failure” in the wake of her death.

In September, then-Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne drafted a plan to combat the increase in violence, including an emergency telephone number, 3018, for cyberbullying.

Valérie Piau is an attorney who specializes in education law and often works on harassment cases. She personally has seen a recent increase in violent incidents that she attributes at least partially to social networks.

“I am seeing an increase in violence, but not only physical violence," she said. "Particularly in terms of school bullying, I see things that are increasingly morally violent and can lead to suicide.”

Recently, Piau has seen students using social networks to drum up talk of attacks — calling for a given student to be beaten up, for example — and to film and share the incidents.

Though this helps to provides proof to the police, Piau argues that social networks provide a vector to almost glorify the violence.

“It’s certain that social networks have increased the violence, particularly in terms of harassment," she said. "Social networks are a tool that promotes physical and verbal violence between minors.”



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