Teaching about defence

Hommage du monde scolaire la veille de la cérémonie de panthéonisation, le 26 mai 2015
Hommage du monde scolaire la veille de la cérémonie de panthéonisation, le 26 mai 2015 - © Philippe Devernay / Ministère de l'Éducation nationale



    DATE : 1997

    PLACE : France

    OUTCOME : National service reform law. Teaching about defence becomes one of the elements of the “citizenship pathway”.

    “Defence! It is the State's primary raison d'être. It cannot neglect it without destroying itself.” So said General de Gaulle, in Bayeux, on 14 June 1952. By ending compulsory military service in 1997, the French parliament gave the national education service the task of introducing young people to the essential concepts of defence and national security.

    Originally centred around the “citizenship pathway” (census registration at the age of 16, defence education at middle school and high school, defence and citizenship day), that task now extends throughout the school career and on to university.

    Teaching about defence and national security means focusing on three aspects. First, historical perspective, to resituate defence issues within a broader timeframe: from the threat to borders to the threat without borders, and hence from the defence of borders to defence without borders, from national independence to strategic autonomy, from national defence (the white paper of 1972 on national defence) to defence (the white paper of 1994) to defence and national security (the white papers of 2008 and 2013); second, France “among the peoples of the world”, in the context of internal and external threats, its alliances and commitments, the military actions and operations conducted by its armed forces, and a continuum of internal and external security, on which the fight against terrorism is a major marker; and third, defence as public policy, i.e. a political authority which decides it, operators who implement it and the resources that are assigned to it by the nation, based on an analysis of the land, air, maritime, interministerial and inter-Allied aspects of defence.

    The central issue is clearly the participation of students - future citizens - in the defence and national security of their country. Defence interrogates citizenship first, not the other way round. The end of conscription has meant a new relationship between citizens, defence and national security; a new civic contract between France and its armed forces.


    cours cm2
    Final year primary school students at École Paul Bert
    © Laurent Villeret / Picturetank / Ministère de l’Éducation nationale


    At the same time, the organisation of defence is no longer restricted to the national setting alone: under multilateral, in particular European, treaties and agreements, France participates in multiple overseas international security operations, in the name of the values it champions and the law it promotes, in the community of nations. The middle-school and high-school history and geography syllabuses fit into this context. In the face of threats that cross borders, the traditional distinction between external defence and internal security becomes blurred, and resistance and resilience must draw on the whole of the national community.

    The core role of the national education service, in this context, is to teach all students the essential skills and knowledge that comprise these subjects, to consolidate them as part of a coherent progression, and to test them, with the aim of building a shared defence culture. An official curriculum and teacher training are necessary conditions for this to take place.



    The primary school curriculum devotes considerable space to “moral and civic education” (éducation morale et civique, or EMC). The points of reference that enable pupils, according to their age, to better situate themselves in time and space place them, ipso facto, in the context of our period and country. At middle school (collège), where basic skills and knowledge are consolidated, students learn to recognise and respect the symbols and emblems of the French Republic and the characteristics of the French Nation, and to situate France within the European Union, the French within the European context and France in the world.


    Primary school class
    © Phovoir


    In 3ème (age 14-15) and Première (16-17), two “defence” modules were clearly identified in the 2010-2012 curriculum. The former “civic education” course in 3ème devoted 20% of class time to the theme of “defence and peace”. With the new EMC syllabus, the situation has changed significantly. Not only is it not articulated with the history and geography syllabuses, it is not immediately clear where the elements that teach about defence and national security are to be found in the texts. The absence of references to a level of education also poses a problem. The need for articulation with the history and geography syllabuses led to the recommendation that the three aspects mentioned above should be taught to students of 3ème, i.e. at age 14-15.

    In the section on “Engagement”, the title refers to “Learning the governing principles of national defence”. In the face of threats that cross borders (other than tensions linked to migration, which reinforce them or lead certain states to invent new ones), the distinction between internal and external security has become blurred. France's overseas military operations are presented in this context. Under the heading “Explain the link between commitment and

    responsibility”, an entry entitled “The security of people and property: organisations and issues” makes the link between defence and national security.

    In the section on “Judgment”, under the heading “Understanding how the French Republic's two values of liberty and equality can come into conflict” is the title “Problems of peace and war in the world and causes of conflicts”. It is up to us to give coherence to these sparse elements, by closely articulating them with the history and geography syllabuses in 3ème.

    At the lycée (high school), part of the EMC syllabus in Première (age 16-17) is devoted to defence. It is theme 4: “The structure and challenges of national defence”. Since the late 1980s, “national defence” has seen in-depth changes and reforms, in response to changes in the world affecting the conditions for both peace and war; the organisation of defence is no longer limited to the national setting alone; under alliances and agreements, in particular at European level, France participates in multiple overseas international security operations; the end of conscription, the professionalisation of the armed forces and the sophistication and growing costs of equipment have meant a new relationship between citizens, defence and national security.

    By researching and analysing two themes chosen from a list, students are encouraged to think about these questions: the roles of defence and national security (new forms of insecurity such as terrorism, piracy and the proliferation of weapons and means of destruction, global defence, France between peace and war, protection of national territory and foreign operations, the justification for international missions of the armed forces); means of defence (French forces, international defence alliances and commitments, bilateral agreements); defence actors (institutions, citizens, information, defence careers, the military reserve, the feminisation of the armed forces, current debates such as the concept of military ethics, respect for the rule of law).



    At collège, the history syllabus in 4ème (age 13-14) looks at “the Revolution, the Empire and war”. It also discusses the spread of nationalist feeling across Europe, thus enabling students to understand the revival of such feeling today. The geography syllabus, devoted to globalisation, takes as its felicitous starting point the theme “Seas and oceans: a maritime world”, to look at ports, coastlines, maritime trade and the strategic role of straits, opening up a broad discussion of maritime geostrategy.


    Collège Jean-Philippe Rameau, Champagneau- Mont-d’Or
    © Philippe Devernay / Ministère de l'Éducation nationale


    In 3ème (age 14-15), the history syllabus begins with the First World War and culminates with present-day conflicts, taking in the two World Wars, totalitarian regimes and including map-based work on operations like Stalingrad and the Pacific War. It goes on to look at the Cold War and the main emphases of global geopolitics since the early 1990s, thus building a picture of the context of France's power and defence interests. Still in 3ème, the geography syllabus addresses “France in today's world”. It situates metropolitan France and the French overseas territories in the world, and introduces the concept of “power”, which can be usefully explained and expanded upon, both for France and for Europe. It presents the European Union as a major economic cluster “founded on the financial power of the euro, but whose diplomatic and military role remains limited”.

    In this way, it lays the foundations for historical, geopolitical and strategic reasoning, while also considering the political, material and moral challenges facing defence. More generally, the history and geography syllabuses encompass the recent past, giving students the keys to understanding current conflicts and the challenges inherent to the difficult, incomplete process of building peace in the world. At collège, it is on the basis of these disciplines alone (history, geography, and moral and civic education), in combination with our programmes, that “practical interdisciplinary education” (EPI) can be developed: in it, defence and national security, in all its aspects, will have the place teachers choose to give it.

    The curricula of the different types of lycée (general, technical and vocational) show a clearer presence of defence and national security issues, and a more extensive articulation with the history and geography syllabuses (2010-2012 syllabuses, revised in 2013).

    In Première (age 16-17) at the general lycée, Theme 2 of the combined history-geography syllabus is “War in the 20th century”, which looks at the two World Wars, the Cold War and the new forms of conflict since 1990 (an armed conflict: the Gulf War; a place: Sarajevo; a terrorist act: 11 September 2001). The history syllabuses focus on the recent past, reinforcing students' understanding of current conflicts.

    The history syllabus in Terminale (final year, age 17-18), for students of the S (sciences), ES (economic and social studies) and L (literary studies) series, is on the theme of “Historical perspectives on today's world”. For Theme 1, students choose between “The historian and memories of the Second World War” and “The historian and memories of the Algerian War”. By studying the history of the Resistance (in Première) and memories of the Resistance (in Terminale), for instance, students learn, on the one hand, to distinguish history as an activity from memory as a subject of history and, on the other, to analyse the history of the Resistance since 1945 and that of the interlocking and competing memories which appear today.

    Theme 2 in S series (Theme 3 in ES and L series) looks at “Major powers and conflicts in the world since 1945”, “The paths of power” (the USA and the world since 1918/1945, China and the world since 1919/1945) and “A hotbed of conflict” (the Near and Middle East, a hotbed of conflict since the end of the Ottoman Empire/Second World War).

    The challenges of defence and security are approached in relation to the topicality of these issues. The geography syllabus in Terminale at the general lycée - on the theme of “A geostrategic approach to the seas and oceans” - similarly fits into this approach.



    education civique
    Collège Michelet, Vanves
    © Xavier Schwebel / Picture Tank / Ministère de l'Éducation nationale


    Students at technical lycées can choose, depending on their course, from a range of themes including “Living and dying in wartime”. Meanwhile, “Europe, a region marked by two World Wars” is a compulsory subject for Première students of the “management science and technology” and “health and social science and technology” courses.

    At the vocational lycée, the civic education syllabus in Première “particularly stresses the duty of defence”. In Terminale, the chapter of history on “The world since the watershed of the 1990s” looks at the collapse of the Soviet model and emphasises the “crises which marked the start of this new period”: genocides in Africa and Europe, terrorism, the war on terror, France's international responsibility, and citizens' awareness. For the Certificat d'aptitude professionnelle (CAP), Theme 4 of the history syllabus (“Wars and conflicts in 20th-century Europe”) presents the challenges to defence and national security.

    Thus the school curriculum offers rich and varied subject matter, structured in a progressive way so as to equip students with the skills and knowledge of defence and national security which they need to fulfil their duties as citizens and economic, social, cultural and environmental actors, founded on the French Republican values promised by the schools system. Students are taught a critical perspective, distance from events, and their responsibility as future citizens. By thinking about, grasping and accepting complexity - the basic tenets of learning about defence and national security - students are able to progress in their education as young citizens: accept nothing without first discussing, challenging and understanding it.

    Teachers of history, geography and civic education, as well as those of other disciplines, need to be prepared to teach these concepts, which also need to be clearly identified. This requirement is all the more crucial since the Instituts universitaires de formation des maîtres (IUFMs) were replaced by the Écoles supérieures du professorat et de l'éducation (ESPEs), enabling the previous approach to the subject to be called into question.



    cours lycee
    High school (lycée) class
    © Sophie Brandstrom / Ministère de l'Éducation nationale

    In 2012, at the request of the director-general for schools, the French education inspectorate drew up a system of reference to serve as a benchmark for the new ESPEs. The document was circulated to them, and began being used by some in autumn 2013. It is intended to support those teaching staff involved in broad-based teaching about military, defence and national security issues. It comprises four modules, each lasting two hours, plus one revision module with case studies.

    The material begins by looking at “The importance of military events in national history”, through France's involvement in conflicts, the part played by the French

    navy in France's global influence, and the role of the armed forces in defence and national security. This means approaching defence as public policy, in a historical perspective, over the long-term duration of an organisation and institution, with elements of comparison in time and space and references to the army, air force, navy and Gendarmerie Nationale. It then goes on to analyse the contemporary bases of defence and national security.

    “From the link between the nation and its armed forces to the relationship between defence and society” focuses on defence in its political, social and cultural setting (roles, history, military traditions). A central place is given to the issue of the French people's participation in defence and the participation of the armed forces in the emergence of citizenship. The relationship between schools and the armed forces is looked at. Useful parallels are drawn concerning the influences between military events and literature, philosophy, the arts and the sciences.

    “New settings, new references: France's defence and national security environment (from the 1970s to the present)” considers the changing risks and structure of international life, and analyses the contemporary bases of France's defence policy, in the spirit of the key changes seen in the successive white papers. The issues of defence and national security are looked at through the prism of major threats, weapons of mass destruction and national resilience.

    The final part addresses the most recent challenges to French defence and national security. “Governing in stormy weather: how to organise the security of the nation?” looks at the setting, context and actors that make up France's defence and security architecture, and the emergence of a new government defence and security culture which has the continuity of national life as its objective, foreign operations as an extension, and deterrence as the ultimate insurance.


    Teacher training at an École supérieure du professorat et de l’éducation (ESPE)
    © Xavier Schwebel / Ministère de l'Éducation nationale


    Published in December 2013 in the form of a DVD and booklet, Enseigner la défense (Teaching about defence) reinforces teaching through an academic approach and suggested activities. A national web portal, under the aegis of the inspectorate-general, also provides up-to-date references on the issues of defence and national security. Continuing professional development - crucial for all teachers - must be based on training, for which the prime responsibility, within the regional education authorities, lies with the regional inspectorates, in particular as part of the trinômes académiques, or 'academic triads'. That training must be both joined up and consistent at national level, and it is the inspectorate-general's job to ensure that it is.


    Tristan Lecoq Inspector-General of National Education Associate lecturer in contemporary history at Paris-Sorbonne University

    Read more

    Online bibliography

    Articles and resources on history, geography, and moral and civic education

    Understanding war

    White paper on defence and national security, 2013

    France, NATO and the Europe of defence since the end of the Cold War



    Teaching about defence: List of books and DVDs published by Réseau Canopé, including Enseigner la défense

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