The new French school year typically brings some kind of controversy. This year’s war of words involves school dress codes, which by and large tend to involve rules over what teenage girls can and cannot wear.
The storm began brewing shortly after the rentrée, as the beginning of a new school year is known in France. The Borda High School in the town of Dax, tucked in the southwest corner of the country, displayed some posters to illustrate what types of clothing were not allowed.
At the top, the poster said: “tenue correcte exigée” (correct clothes required). Underneath were two pictures: One of a teenage girl wearing a top that left her belly button exposed, and a second of her wearing a miniskirt. Both photos had large red X’s splashed across them.
A student shared the poster on Instagram along with a defiant statement that accused school officials of sexism:
“They will surely tell us that it distracts the boys, that it is explicit. So men can dress however they want. They sexualize us though we are dressing for the heat, should we wear a sweater to please them?… They would rather remind us that a woman is an object than deal with the real problems of this establishment, and there are many of them.”
The ensuing outcry led to a national show of solidarity with the students. On September 14, teenage girls across the country staged a protest by wearing skirts and other supposedly prohibited clothes to school and then sharing photos of themselves on Twitter using the hashtag #Lundi14Septembre.
As the subject continued to spark debates, President Emmanuel Macron found himself asked to weigh in by a teenager during a visit to the Gascon town of Condom. Macron generally seemed hesitant to respond, saying that he “didn’t have to get involved in everything.” But then he added:
“There is a freedom of dress but it’s a good thing that we try to keep some codes in college, in high school. Because afterward you never know where it ends, ” Macron said. “Common sense is better than regulation in this matter.”
But while Macron may have hoped to stay out of this morass, education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer drove right in during an interview two days later on French radio.
“It is important to arrive at school in proper attire,” Blanquer said on RTL. “You don’t go to school as you go to the beach or a nightclub…Everyone can understand that we come to school dressed in a Republican way.”
While he later clarified that “Republican way” meant demonstrating equality, his remarks had already touched off another round of fury on social media. That included many people pointing out that one of France’s symbols, Marianne, is often depicted with a breast exposed.
Elisabeth Moreno, France’s minister for equality between men and women, responded in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper that dress codes were archaic.
“In France, everyone is free to dress as they wish,” she said. “It has taken centuries for women to be free from dress codes.” She added: “It is also an issue of education for young boys about the relationship they maintain with young girls and linked to the values of respect. “
Still, all this chatter prompted French magazine Marianne to enlist French polling agency IFOP to check the pulse of the country on this topic. And the results published on September 25 managed to just fan the flames even higher. It wasn’t the actual responses themselves, but rather the nature of the questions and a rather inartful graphic created by IFOP.
The poll asked more than 2,000 people whether outfits that featured “no bra” or “plunging necklines” or “crop top” or a t-shirt that left parts of a bra exposed. It also asked about miniskirts, short shorts, tight clothes, and jeans with holes in them. There were no questions about boys’ attire.
In response, Twitter lit up again with such critiques as the one by actress Florence Porcel who sarcastically called on Ifop to launch a similar poll for teenage boys around various clothes that could make their “package” too distracting.
As the first month of school ends, the controversy continues to simmer. Students at another high school staged a protest on September 28 over talk of a dress code, according to France Blue radio. And they launched a Change.org petition supporting the right to wear a crop top at school.