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ASSOCIATION FOR TEACHER EDUCATION IN EUROPE (ATEE) 30 TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE AMSTERDAM The Recognition of Cultural Diversity in the French Educational Context: A Literature Review

The Recognition of Cultural Diversity in the French Educational
Context: A Literature Review
LISEC EA 2310 & BETA UMR 7522 – Louis Pasteur University of
Strasbourg (France)
Cultural diversity has long been ignored in French public policies,
especially in education policy. To a large extent, this situation can be
explained by the fact that taking into account cultural differences in general,
and especially at school, might have been interpreted as a violation of the
principle of equality in rights, and perceived as a sign of inequity among
pupils and students.
Starting from the nineties, the European unification and the world
globalisation have altered the landscape, raising a large debate on the
recognition of cultural diversity in the French educational system. This
paper presents the key ideas and arguments developed in this debate,
focusing on three major issues i.e. the links between cultural diversity and
citizenship, the approaches to the recognition of cultural diversity in the
society and in education, and the pedagogical methods to raise pupils’ and
students’ intercultural awareness. The paper is based on a review of the
French-speaking academic literature.
Assimilationism Citizenship education – Cultural diversity – Cultural
identity Ethnic diversity Integrationism Interculturalism
Multiculturalism – Pluriculturalism – Social inclusion – Values.
As part of the motto of the French Republic, the principle of equality
among human beings is a fundamental principle of the French society.
Therefore, in France, cultural diversity has long been ignored in public
policies, especially in education policy. In this traditional approach, taking
1 Mailing address: Faculté des sciences économiques – 61 AVENUE DE LA FORET
into account cultural differences at school might have been interpreted as a
violation of equality in rights, and perceived as a sign of inequity among
pupils and students.
Starting from the nineties, the European unification and the world
globalisation have altered the landscape. On the one hand, building a
meaningful European citizenship involves that every nation or cultural
group within the European Union recognises, understands and accepts
cultural diversity. On the other hand, coping with the economic and social
globalisation, and taking advantage of it, needs awareness of- and
preparation for pluriculturality. An example of that is the growing tendency
of firms to hire managers multiculturally open-minded and ready to face
cultural diversity within their staffs, markets, partners and clients (Davoine
1998; Dupard 1997; Pierre 2002; Poirey 1994).
These new trends influenced attitudes and provoked debate about the
recognition of cultural diversity in France, especially in education. The aim
of this paper is to present the key ideas and arguments which were
developed in this debate. The paper is based on a review of the French-
speaking academic literature. Three main issues emerging from the debate
will be presented.
The first and most prevalent issue deals with the links between cultural
diversity and citizenship. On the one hand, insofar as citizenship was
traditionally based on ethnic identity, growing cultural diversity puts
citizenship into question. On the other hand, the recognition of differences is
a matter of democracy.
A second discussion centres on the approaches of cultural diversity
recognition in the society and in education. Much attention has been paid by
authors to analysing and comparing such concepts as “interculturalism” and
Finally, the third debate focuses on the pedagogical methods to raise
pupils’ and students’ intercultural awareness. Several authors proposed
methods such as language teaching, teaching history or civics.
Though cultural diversity in education has often been discussed, few
authors have specifically addressed the French situation in the international
academic literature. Therefore, this paper should be of interest to
researchers, practitioners and policy makers concerned with developing a
European way to handling cultural diversity in education, and especially to
those concerned with taking the French approach into account.
The paper is divided into three sections. Section 1 discusses the
relationships between cultural diversity and citizenship in the French
educational context. Section 2 presents some concepts and systems which
were mentioned in the debate for the recognition of cultural diversity in the
society and in education. Section 3 reports some pedagogical ways for
cultural diversity education which were suggested in this debate.
1. Cultural diversity and citizenship in the French educational context
Cultural diversity has long been ignored in the French society, including
the educational system. Four major reasons can explain that, which are
unity, identity, safety and equality. However, some recent changes can be
1.1. Unity, identity, safety and equality
First, France has a long tradition of political centralisation. Since its
origins in the middle ages, from monarchy to empire then finally republic,
the French state has every time been centrally administered. Never has
federalism been applied in France. Apart from some overseas islands
(“French overseas territories and territorial communities” – ‘collectivités
territoriales’ –, i.e. French Polynesia, Mayotte, New Caledonia, Saint Pierre
and Miquelon, Wallis and Futuna), the same national laws, regulations and
institutions, centrally designed, are identically implemented whatever the
part of the national territory considered. Therefore, the French state has long
considered that recognising cultural differences would encourage emergence
and structuring of minority-based local powers, and would open way to
claims for political autonomy. As a result, denying cultural diversity has
long been a method to preserve national unity.
This attitude itself had a consequence in terms of cultural identity.
Negation of cultural differences within the French population led the French
state to favour and promote a unique French cultural model. A good
example to illustrate this point is the French Academy (‘Académie
Française’), officially established in 1635 in order to regulate and normalise
the use of French language. Nowadays, the rules edicted by the French
Academy still define the correct use of French language within the
administration, at school, or in the media. More generally, the French
national cultural model is defined through a large set of reference values and
of good practices strongly recommended. The model encompasses various
aspects of the way of life: arts, music, literature, cuisine, religion, dress,
sexual preferences, conjugal status, choice of educational institutions,
political opinions and so forth. In each field, best practices are clearly
identified, for example going to the theatre rather than watching TV,
listening to classical music rather than to popular or world music, reading
this newspaper rather than that, and so on. Of course, the content of the
reference values and best practices may change over time. But adaptation to
new times is rather slow.
Favouring a unique national cultural model implies that each citizen or
inhabitant is required to join the national model, and to adopt its values and
practices. In the French approach, joining the national model does not mean
bringing one’s culture and adding it to others. On the contrary, it means
replacing one’s initial values and practices with the dominant culture, at
least in the public sphere, i.e. outside one’s home. To a large extent,
conforming to this attitude meets the French conception of civic behaviour.
Diverging behaviours are tolerated, but they are not considered legitimate,
and are not valued. They may become legitimate only if a large part of the
national community adopts them. Such changes can occur to meet new
circumstances. For example, as a result of several government road safety
campaigns, not wine drinking at meals is socially accepted nowadays while
it was not twenty-five years ago and would have then been considered as a
trait of an imperfect socialisation.
The third reason explaining the negation of cultural diversity is safety.
As can be seen from foreign examples such as the Spanish Basque land or
Northern Ireland, affirmation of culturally and historically based regional
identity can turn to claims for political autonomy, and lead to violence and
terrorism. In France itself, several separatist movements have developed
terrorist activities since the seventies in Corsica and in Brittany. In that
respect too, preventing the emergence of sub-national communities has been
a strategy to preserve public safety. More recently, the development of
international terrorism linked with Middle Eastern conflicts (Palestine then
Iraq) offered new arguments to justify “anti-communautarism”, as it is
termed. It is generally thought that Islamic communities might host
activists, which advocates against the recognition of sub-national
communities. More generally, the increasing ethnic diversity within the
French population for fifty years aroused suspicion towards ethnic
Of course, banning communities is a matter of consequence. It
contributes to explain why French people so much rely on government to
get aid. More generally, defiance towards diversity has profoundly shaped
the French society and political system, which look so different as compared
with others within or outside the European Union (for example, in
comparison with the American approach to diversity and communities, as
described by Putnam [2000]).
It thus appears that there is a contradiction between the French
republican conception of citizenship and the recognition of cultural
diversity. It can be noticed that France has still, in 2005, not yet ratified the
European Council Charter for Regional or Minority Languages entered into
force in 1998. In the French conception, citizenship does not only mean
active involvement in the functioning of democracy. Citizenship also means
relegating personal differences to the private sphere and merging as an
individual in the dominant model. As a consequence, individuals are
theoretically identical in the public sphere and can then be recognised as
having strictly equal rights (Vermès 2002:13). Therefore, individuals should
not be treated differently. In other words, differences – and especially
cultural differences – are denied and cannot be used to justify any difference
in treatment. Thus, the principle of equality in rights appears to be the fourth
grounding reason of the French traditionally assimilationist attitude towards
cultural diversity.
Assimilationism within the educational system echoes the attitude in the
society in general. In primary and secondary schools, curricula are centrally
designed by the Ministry of Education. The institutional and functioning
framework is centrally designed too. Teachers are public sector employees,
which implies that their expected behaviour is codified and standardised.
Pedagogical practices are normalised, and Academic inspectors control the
way rules are implemented. A key principle is that pupils themselves should
not be treated differently. Finally, a major objective assigned to the
educational system is to educate to citizenship in the French sense of the
word. Due to their own education and training, most primary and secondary
French teachers also have faith in this model. In such a context, there is little
place for taking account of differences among pupils, whatever these
differences may be, cultural or else. The recent controversy about wearing
Muslim headscarves at school illustrates this context.
1.2. Recent changes
However, this traditional way of handling cultural diversity has been put
into question since the nineties. It has been argued that a modern conception
of citizenship should take into account not only equality but also equity
(Vermès 2002: 26).
The first idea is that though formally enjoying the same rights,
individuals do not actually have the same chances and opportunities as
regards school achievement, access to employment or position in the social
hierarchy. Recognising differences and taking account of them would
therefore contribute to overcome actual inequalities. Applied to the
educational system, this more nuanced position suggests that pupils whose
cultural background does not allow them to get the best out of the education
they receive, might be awarded better learning conditions. In that respect, a
“Priority education” programme (‘Education prioritaire’) designed to meet
special needs was launched in 1991. The programme consists of additional
funding to support educational institutions in geographical areas socially
and culturally disadvantaged. In 2004, the programme was covering 13% of
the whole population of primary and secondary pupils.
Another aspect of the equity argument is that individuals from cultural
or ethnic minorities are not equally recognised in the society. Though
enjoying formal equality in rights, they are often less considered than other
citizens. Therefore, institutional and public acceptance of their differences is
a matter of legitimacy and dignity to them, in order to recover self-esteem
(Ogay et alii 2002: 46) and feel as valuable citizens as others (Charlot 2002:
139-140; Vermès 2002:16-17). In education at least this demand was partly
met, as shown by the fact that several regional languages (Alsatian, Basque,
Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Creole, Melanesian, Occitan and Tahitian) and
immigrants’ languages (among which Arabic, Chinese, Turkish and
Vietnamese) are taught nowadays in French primary and secondary schools.
In addition, the lack of consideration for minority cultures can have
critical effects on the educational activity itself. Using social psychological
approach, Ogay et alii (2002: 47) argued that part of school failure among
immigrants’ children and part of their violence might result from a sense of
loyalty to their community. The point is that children have to choose
between the dominant model and their parents’ model. While some children
will choose to assimilate, some others will reject the dominant model and
reinforce their belonging to their community, hoping to change people’s
minds. Violence inside (and outside) schools, as well as school failure, may
be signs of this rejection of the dominant model. Therefore, valuing cultural
diversity might abolish the necessity for pupils to choose one model, and
consequently might help reducing school failure and violence.
Furthermore, the efficiency of the teaching and learning process is
subject to recognising cultural diversity. As pointed out by Charlot (2002:
141) and Ogay et alii (2002: 48-49), learning implies decoding information
on the basis of one’s own culture, knowledge and experience. Therefore,
effective teaching implies that teachers have some knowledge of learners’
cultural patterns and representations, in order to adapt their methods and
presentations to them accordingly. On the contrary, Ogay et alii (id.: 44)
emphasised how distraught, frustrated and finally ineffective teachers may
be when unprepared to classroom cultural diversity.
2. Some concepts and systems for the recognition of cultural diversity in
the society and in education
In contrast with the French assimilationist traditional approach, some
authors pointed out that there may be various ways of taking into account
the pupils’ cultural diversity. On the basis of international experience,
Muñoz-Sedano and Martin (2000) classified several approaches to deal with
cultural diversity. Four non-assimilationist conceptions can be
distinguished: segregationism, multiculturalism, interculturalism and
Segregationism, first, means apartheid. Cultural minorities may exist but
must develop separately. There are no relationships between cultures.
Cultural minorities are excluded from the educational system of the
dominant group. They may have their own schools, teachers, languages and
pedagogical methods adapted to their specific social and cultural context. In
this model, minority cultures are not recognised as equal to the culture of
the dominant group. The former South African apartheid model illustrates
this approach.
Next, multiculturalism means that all cultures represented in the country
are recognised as equally legitimate. Multiculturalism aims to promote
simultaneous development of different cultures on the basis of mutual
respect. The different cultures coexist and each may follow its own way.
Cultural minorities have access to the majority educational system, but they
may choose as well to develop their own specific educational institutions. In
the majority educational system, cultural differences are not necessarily
taken into account. Cultures may choose to interact and develop
relationships, but they do not necessarily have to (Wicht 2004). Community
coexistence is based on a minimal set of common ‘functional’ values such
as murder prohibition or the respect of commitments (Camilleri 1997). This
approach is also called “pluriculturalism”. Authors generally consider that,
to some extent, multi- or pluriculturalism might be illustrated by cases in the
United Kingdom.
The third approach is interculturalism, which means that beyond the
coexistence of several cultures equally valued, there are further interactions
between cultures (Camilleri 1997). The different cultures are represented in
the majority educational system, within or outside curricula (for example
through extracurricular activities). Especially, in the majority educational
system, all mother tongues are taught or at least may be used at school.
Cultural differences are also taught. Pedagogical methods must adapt to the
pupils’ cultural needs. Interculturalism aims to provide pupils with skills
which are necessary to understand other cultures, necessary to live together
and necessary to interact. Wicht (2004) considers that Switzerland illustrates
this approach.
Finally, the fourth way to handle cultural diversity would be
integrationism. Integrationism means that all cultures merge in a unique
common culture. This unique common culture is not the one of the
dominant group. It is a new cultural melting pot, consisting of contributions
from all cultures represented in the country. The common culture changes
and adapts itself as new cultural communities settle in the country. It
comprises common languages and an extended set of shared values. The
educational system is common to all. Both cultures and languages are
represented at school. Thus, each culture may be equally recognised and
respected as part of the common culture. To some extent, an example of this
approach might be provided by the New Education System implemented in
Singapore since 1979, which takes into account both mother tongue
languages and cultures (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) as well as English
(Gauthier 1998).
Basically, these models can be contrasted by means of three criteria, i.e.:
- The legitimacy awarded by the dominant culture to minority cultures;
- The minority groups’ autonomy of decision as regards the setting of own
specific educational institutions;
- The representation of minority cultures in the dominant educational
The Table below presents this typology.
Social models for handling cultural diversity
Are minority
considered to
be as legitimate
as the dominant
Are minority
groups allowed
to set and
develop their
own specific
Are minority cultures, minority
languages and cultural differences
taught within the dominant educational
system? Are the cultural needs of
pupils taken into account through
adapted pedagogical methods?
Assimilationism No No No
Segregationism No Yes No
Multiculturalism Yes Yes Optional
Interculturalism Yes Yes Compulsory
Integrationism Yes No Compulsory
3. Some pedagogical ways for cultural diversity education
The third wing of this debate deals with the ways of education for
cultural diversity. Several ideas were proposed.
3.1. Intercultural education
The first and most thoughtful approach is known as intercultural
education (‘éducation à l’interculturel’). As Camilleri (1997) explained,
intercultural education is based on three main pillars.
To begin with, teaching and learning other cultures implies respect for
these cultures. Respect itself results from the recognition of the legitimacy
of these cultures. Linking cultures with their original environment opens
way to understanding their rationality, to recognising their legitimacy, and is
therefore helpful to get rid of value judgments. Likewise, teachers’ and
students’ awareness of the psychological mechanisms which generate
racism might contribute to their open-mindedness.
Next, it is necessary to recall and remember that cultures are living and
change permanently. Interculturalism and intercultural education imply
relationships and interaction between cultures, which means that cultures
may adapt and change. Therefore, there is no way for intercultural education
if cultures are construed as designed once for all and as not subject to
Finally, effective intercultural education should neither mask nor deny
actual antagonism which may exist between cultures. Interculturalism does
not mean peace and love among nations. There may be contradictions
between grounding values of cultural groups, for example as regards
polygamy, female genital mutilation, or the concepts of human rights or
democracy. Though it cannot solve such antagonisms, intercultural
education must acknowledge them to be credible.
3.2. Linking national history, European history and world history in
teaching history
The second idea deals with teaching history. Obviously, unawareness or
rejection of other cultures may lead to intolerance and nationalism.
Therefore, Malbert & Perotti (1998) state that, in teaching history, national
history should be put in a European perspective, in order to make people
aware of belonging to a common civilisation. In addition, teaching
European history itself should be connected with world history so that
pupils and students in European countries avoid developing ethnocentric
views and attitudes.
3.3. Language teaching
Third, in the French-speaking academic literature, language teaching is
the most frequently quoted way of education for cultural diversity. On the
one hand, authors express the idea that language teaching provides pupils
and students with intercultural skills which are necessary for mutual
understanding and interaction (Chalabi & De Salins 2002; Clisson & Zuliani
2001; Schumacher 1998). On the other hand, other authors emphasize the
role of teaching minority languages as a sign of recognition and respect of
other cultures (Cunningham & Reddan 1998).
3.4. The role of teaching civics and rhetoric
To end, Khlifi (1998) emphasized the importance of various disciplines
in enforcing cultural diversity education. He especially pointed out the role
of civics: through such themes as the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, both unity and diversity of mankind can be examined. He also
insisted on the importance of teaching rhetoric whatever its form, essay
writing, debating and so forth. Insofar as it is based on handling arguments,
rhetoric favours multifaceted global approach to problems, which is an
important skill in education for cultural diversity.
Due to political reasons, cultural diversity has long been ignored in the
French educational system. However, changes occur since the nineties.
Along with the European unification and the world globalisation, the need
for more equity and efficiency in education has urged reforms. As a
consequence, a large debate has been initiated on new concepts and new
ways to cope with cultural diversity in education.
Though efforts are made to acknowledge this diversity – especially
language diversity at school, the French educational system seems to be
late as compared with other national systems such as those of the United
Kingdom or the Netherlands. Reducing the gap probably requires
connecting with the international experience and debates in this field, to get
the most of them.
Camilleri, Carmel (1997), “Les implications théorétiques de la formation à
l’interculturel”, Revue Suisse de Sociologie, 23(2), 389-400.
Chalabi, Hocine & Geneviève-Dominique de Salins (2002), “Saint-Étienne,
‘Terre des hommes’. La mise en place d'un DESS Français langue étrangère
et politiques de la ville”, Ville – Ecole – Intégration Enjeux, 130, 249-255.
Charlot, Bernard (2002), “Education et cultures”, Ville – Ecole – Intégration
Enjeux, 129, 137-145.
Clisson, Adelinde & Régine Zuliani (2001), “Activités pédagogiques
internationales transdiciplinaires”, Cahiers de l’APLIUT Association des
professeurs de langues des instituts universitaires de technologie, 20(3), 88-
Cunningham, Denis & Fran Reddan (1998), “Mosaïques australiennes”,
Revue internationale d’éducation – Sèvres, 17, 45-60.
Davoine, Eric (1998), “Gestion internationale des ressources humaines et
nouvelles situations de recrutement Analyse d’un cas franco-allemand”,
Congrès de l’Association francophone de gestion des ressources humaines –
Actes des jeunes chercheurs, 11, 108-116.
Dupard, Dominique (1997), “La constitution d’instances dirigeantes dans
les multinationales – L’expérience d’un chasseur de têtes international”,
Annales de l’École de Paris du Management, 4, 323-329.
Gauthier, Pierre-Louis (1998), “Diversité culturelle et plurilinguisme en
Asie du sud-est L’exemple de Singapour”, Revue internationale
d’éducation – Sèvres, 17, 61-68.
Khlifi, Mohamed (1998), “La tolérance à l’école du XXIème siècle”, Revue
internationale d’éducation – Sèvres, 17, 79-88.
Muñoz-Sedano, Antonio & Franck Martin (2000), “La recherche dans
l'éducation interculturelle : analyse critique et perspective systémique”,
Dossiers des sciences de l'éducation, 3, 111-130.
Ogay, Tania, Yvan Leanza, Pierre R. Dasen & Nilima Changkakoti (2002),
“Pluralité culturelle à l’école : Les apports de la psychologie
interculturelle”, Ville – Ecole – Intégration Enjeux, 129, 36-64.
Malbert, Daniel & Antonio Perotti (1998), “L’Europe et la diversité”, Revue
internationale d’éducation – Sèvres, 17, 33-44.
Pierre, Philippe (2002), “Les élites de la mondialisation : quelles
constructions identitaires ? ”, Éducation permanente, 150, 129-160.
Poirey, Karinne (1994), “Recrutement européen et gestion des équipes
‘pluriculturelles’ : enquête exploratoire auprès de 26 multinationales”,
Journées nationales des IAE, 565-584.
Putnam, Robert D. (2000), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of
American Community, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Schumacher, Roger (1998), “Des classes bilingues dans l’académie de
Strasbourg”, Revue internationale d’éducation – Sèvres, 17, 89-95.
Vermès, Geneviève (2002), “Assimilation, multiculturel, interculturel”,
Ville – Ecole – Intégration Enjeux, 129, 10-28.
Wicht, Bernard (2004), “La diversité culturelle : le sens d’une idée”, in
Agence intergouvernementale de la Francophonie, Diversité culturelle et
mondialisation, Paris : Editions Autrement (10-28).
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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Education et cultures
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Charlot, Bernard (2002), "Education et cultures", Ville -Ecole -Intégration Enjeux, 129, 137-145.
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Davoine, Eric (1998), "Gestion internationale des ressources humaines et nouvelles situations de recrutement -Analyse d'un cas franco-allemand", Congrès de l'Association francophone de gestion des ressources humaines -Actes des jeunes chercheurs, 11, 108-116.