The new minister of education under President Sarkozy is known to favor a return to the use of vous by teachers to address their students starting in the equivalent of the first grade. In nursery school, according to a May 20 article in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, it is normal for teachers to address their pupils as tu, because there is a certain amount of affection between teacher and pupil. But most students learn to say vous to their teachers while they are in primary school and make the transition from pupil to student.
Some teachers continue to say tu to their students into high school, however. Those like the minister of education who would prefer that teachers always address their students as vous say it's a question of respect. But those who disagree say that's a smokescreen — there's nothing disrespectful about a teacher addressing a student as tu, says the national secretary of one of the big teacher's unions.
One sociologist, Jean-Pierre Le Goff, proposes banishing tu from the schools starting in first grade. He says the pronouns of address should be used "symmetrically" — students should say vous to their teacher, and teachers should say vous to the student.
The article cites the case of a private school in the Lot-et-Garonne department (southwestern France) which teaches 6th grade through graduation. Students and teachers are required to address each other as vous, and the students wear uniforms. If a student addresses a teacher as tu, he or she is punished. The student might have to sweep the classroom, for example.
An article in the next day's Le Figaro newspaper says that the new education minister believes that vouvoiement of teachers by students is indispensable, but he has no plan to make it compulsory for the time being. He says he would prefer that teachers say vous to students as well.
I don't know what percentage of teachers make a habit of saying tu to their students. Maybe you know...
In other words, stop and smell the roses... today.
On another front, the Figaro reports that the new president's first cabinet meeting broke ground in a couple of interesting ways. Nicolas Sarkozy announced that an "informal debate" on a current issue would take place at each week's cabinet meeting.
For as long as anyone can remember, Le Figaro says, cabinet meetings have been divided into three parts: (A) a review of proposed laws and executive decrees; (B) nominations and personnel matters; and (C) announcements by the different ministers. Now there will be a part (D) — D for debate or discussion on a topic chosen by the president.
The informal debate at last week's cabinet meeting concerned the whole question of overtime work and pay, which is important and controversial since the French government imposed the 35-hour work week a few years ago. Some of the new ministers and sub-ministers said they were thrilled to be able to express their opinions for the first time. "For the first time, there is a real dialog" which is "dynamic" and "energetic," and there's a spirit of teamwork, some of them said.
Sarkozy and his staff apparently cautioned the members of the cabinet to be careful to make sure they have something intelligent to say during these informal debates, and the president asked them not to use the time simply to ask for more resources and leeway for their ministries and departments. "What is interesting," said one of Sarkozy's spokespeople, "is to have an exchange of views on the fundamentals and the principles of an issue, so that each minister won't just be taking positions on matters that concern her or him most directly."
Meanwhile, Sarkozy plans to further relax government protocol. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had taken the step of no longer requiring that the prime minister accompany him to the airport each time he starts an official trip and meet him at the airport when he flies back to Paris.
Sarkozy decided to continue this direction and set the example by actually calling some of the new ministers by their first name during their meeting. But, the Figaro article points out, he refrained from addressing any of them with the familiar tu, and all of them said vous to him and addressed him as Monsieur le Président.
On radio and TV shows this week, I heard commentators and satirists remark several times on the fact that former President Chirac and his wife Bernadette have always addressed each other as vous, at least in public. One commentator wondered out loud if they really resisted calling each other tu in the boudoir.
Another radio chronicler talked about a Figaro article that I can't find and that told the story of a man, a "commoner," who had married a woman of the old nobility, a countess. He opined that he himself thought it was better for parents to say vous to their children because it would teach them respect and responsibility.
The radio personality said he figured those were the kind of parents who kissed their children once on the cheek when they were newborns and once again when they succeeded in getting their master's degree at the university. They wouldn't waste affection on kids. "You'd think that man was of the nobility himself," the commentator said, "because intelligence like his is usually the result of centuries of inbreeding."