There are two major school networks in France, and a large number of minor ones. Public Schools (écoles publique), also called Secular Schools (écoles laïques), are state run and free (as in free beer). In most areas, they are the default schools and their quality is highly dependent upon their localization. Some, in suburban ghettos for instance, are dreadful, others, such as Henri IV in Paris or Clémenceau in Nantes, are elite institutions, on par with the best British public schools can offer.
Normally, the school you go to is determined by the place you live in, but, of course, there are ways to game the system, for instance by choosing rare languages. It was common knowledge in my (pretty average) high school, that those learning Russian (and later Latin) would be put in a “good class”. For the record, I learned Russian, mostly because most of my schoolmates chose English and I felt contrarian.
Private Schools, also called Free Schools (as in free speech) are run by the Catholic Church. They are particularly numerous in Western France and in a few area they are the only available ones. They are emphatically not free (as in free beer) but the fee is generally within the means of the average French working class family. They were originally created to provide their pupils with a Catholic education, and religion is still a part of the curriculum, but for most people, they are merely a higher quality alternative to the public system. If they are numerous in Brittany, even in a working class city such as my native Saint-Nazaire, it is, of course because the region used to be a stronghold of the Catholic Faith, but also because Bretons tend to invest more heavily in the education of their children and are more willing to pay for it.
Ironically, Catholic schools are more open to religious minorities than secular schools. Most are under contract with the State, which pays the wages of the teachers, and must welcome all children, whatever their religion, which in practice means that a veiled Muslim girl is better off in a Catholic school than in a secular school where showing one’s religion is likely to get you expelled.
Universities are mostly public and secular – there are only seven Catholic universities in the whole of France. There is however a clear dichotomy between universities and the so called great schools. In France, university is relatively cheap and open to anybody who has graduated from high school. French universities are however chronically overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed and a significant percentage of the students drop out in the first couple of years. This is a feature, not a bug. Despite what politicians regularly say, the mission of the university is emphatically not to train the elite of the nation. This is the job of the Great Schools, a collection of specialized, mostly state run, institutions such as Polytechnique, Science-Po, or HEC. Those schools are not necessarily expensive but they are highly selective, so selective, in fact, there are specialized preparatory classes, the only purpose of which is to get you ready to try to enter them. Those classes are themselves highly selective and the workload is hellish. (I got admitted in one of them, but due to some administrative SNAFU, I was the only candidate from Saint-Nazaire. It helped.)
Similar systems evolved during the nineteenth century at around the same time in all European states, from reactionary Prussia to supposedly enlightened France and Britain, and of course the reasons for that had nothing to do with humanitarianism. Thanks to an ever growing supply of cheap energy, the advanced societies of the time created a lot of middle-management jobs, something earlier cultures simply could not afford. Those jobs could not be filled by illiterate peasants, hence the necessity for the western European countries which wanted to compete in the new international environment to invest heavily in education.
The school I studied at, for instance, was created after the Franco-Prussian war because a leading industrialist, Émile Boutmy, felt that Frenchmen kind of underperformed in political sciences... and that it might have had a part in the recent and somewhat embarrassing presence of Prussian soldiers in the Loire Valley.
Things were more complicated in France, however, because of the conflict between the republicans, heirs to the 1789 revolution, and the monarchists who, albeit they had accepted the inevitability of a constitutional regime, still nurtured the nostalgia for the Ancien Régime.The Church openly favored the latter ones, which caused the republican left to become more and more anticlerical. After the overthrow of Napoleon the Third and the failure of the royalists to reinstate monarchy, the Republicans became dominant and fought a long ideological battle against the Church.
School was one of the main battlefields. France had, since the Falloux laws in 1851, a weird dual system, with some schools run by the states and some run by the Church. All were under the supervision of both the mayor and the commune's priest, and a large place was given to the representatives of the three main religions in supervisory bodies. In 1881 and 1882, however, the republican (and imperialist) Jules Ferry created a entirely state-run, free, mandatory and secular system. The state and the (Catholic) Church were separated in 1905, which started a protracted war between the "Devil's School" and the "School of Lies" for the young Frenchmen's hearts and minds.
This war lasted until 1983 when the newly elected socialist government tried to create a “big unified secular public service of education", which would have put private schools under the tutelage of the state. The Church successfully mobilized and after a mass demonstration in Paris, President Mitterrand decided to call the whole thing a day and to fire the Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy.
After that the "war of the schools" essentially disappeared from French politics. Fringe atheist groups may rant about “anti-secular laws” and Catholic fundamentalists run fringe schools where one teaches that democracy is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. Most people, however, don’t care, and rightly so, for the real victor of the war has been neither secular civic spirit nor Christianity.
After World War II, Western European nations underwent a period of rapid growth, in a great part thanks to American oil and resources. This caused an equally rapid complexification of their societies and the creation of a lot of middle-management jobs. As a consequence, the number of university students exploded, something the until then rather rigid institution was not ready for. Many of those new students were of peasant or working class background and many adopted one or another of the leftist ideologies which were in fashion at the time – Maoism was particularly popular in France, even though Trotskyism was a close second – while leading the same hedonistic and bohemian life as all students have since François Villon. This led to the may 1968 pseudo-revolution, when Parisian students took to the street and occupied the Sorbonne because they were denied access to the girls’ dormitory (yes, no kidding, that’s how it began). They threatened for a time General De Gaulle’s regime, then found out that Frenchmen were not interested in a free love utopia when the government recovered from its initial shock and rallied its supporters.
The Maoist groups lingered until the eighties, and a few student leaders acquired a lasting fame, most notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit, but the most lasting result of the 1968 events has been the the invasion of the school system by the hedonistic, utilitarian and materialist ideology of the upper middle class. This invasion was progressive, of course, and teachers, as a group, are still marked by the republican ideology – in the original, philosophical, meaning of the term.
Their resistance is more and more ineffective, however. From the mid-eighties onward, ironically when the Socialist Party got into power, schools were seen less and less as a tool to train citizens and more and more as a way to choose elites and train workers according to the needs of the economy.
This is a particularly perverse evolution because, as Chistopher Lasch demonstrated, social mobility is a poor substitute for democracy. It does not question the supremacy of elites but actually promotes it. The fact that a woman of Muslim background became minister of justice in France will bring little comfort to another woman of Muslim background working part time for misery wages in a suburban supermarket. It can even make her plight harder to bear. As a woman and a Muslim, she will be told to consider Rachida Dati’s success as somehow her own (and therefore please shut up when Rachida Dati’s decisions harm her). Besides, the meritocratic mythology will brand her as a failure while legitimizing the power of the elites and justifying the said elites’ contempt for the common people.
We are light-years away from the democratic ideal, which postulates that all citizen are of equal worth and can have an equal say in public affairs.
The irony is that this happened just as France, and most other western European countries, began to develop a chronic case of mass unemployment. The global EROEI of our society had begun to decline, and unlike the United States, we couldn’t compensate by extracting more resources from our vassals. The supply of high-paying jobs suddenly dried up and the competition for those left intensified. Connections and ability to game the system (yours or your family’s) became crucial and the rift between the professional class and the rest of of the population became to widen again.
This trend is bound to continue. As the amount of energy available to society shrinks, the upper classes will fight to keep their privileges, which means driving everybody beneath them into permanent poverty. Chances are that they will use various kind of affirmative action to legitimize this power and resource grabbing operation – in fact they have already begun – and invest resources into elite replacement through education rather than in something really useful.
As our resources dwindles, so will our capacity to support not only parasitic elites, such as Wall Street traders or bankers, but also useful ones such as engineers or scientists. Our focus will have to change from building to maintaining, and for that we need the kind of skill that apprenticeships, not classrooms, can teach.
We also need civic culture – what Montesquieu called virtue – if we don’t want the coming decline to be far more messy and bloody than it needs to be. That can, and must, be taught in classrooms through the study of history, literature, philosophy and sport – in short the classical education of your average Imperial British boarding schools. The purpose of such a curriculum would not be to teach marketable skills but to train citizens and provide them with the frame of common values and references they need to constitute themselves in a true civic body – and effectively contest the supremacy of whatever elite claims the right to rule at any particular time.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether collapsing societies can afford this kind of school. They certainly won't be able to support such clumsy behemoths as the French Éducation Nationale but both Song China and Tokugawa Japan had extensive school networks and a high level of literacy. Medieval Europe, with its (generally literate), village priests might have achieved the same result, if it had had the will.
On the long run, I fear it is this will which will be lacking. Teachers, who have mostly become bureaucrats, have no reason to decentralize the system they live off, and elites little incentive to educate into citizenship the people the claim intellectual supremacy over. Schooling is therefore likely to remain focused on the training of cranks for a global economic machine peak energy has already doomed, and civic education likely to be more and more limited to the indoctrination of "correct thinking".
This kind of education system is bound to become more and more irrelevant as the crisis deepens and people are forced to acquire survival skills and it is easy to envision a point when it will be restricted to an elite – a process which is well advanced in some African countries. When this elite will fall, and it will fall, what will be left of our education system will go the way of Roman rhetoric schools. Only those groups, which need their members to be formally educated – the equivalents of the medieval Church or the Britto-Roman bardic orders – will maintain educational structures.
In some areas, that may mean nobody at all if local communities don't take the matter into their own hands.