The uniforms recently introduced in Provins. Photo: Ville de Provins
The highly symbolic move by officials in Provins comes as France wrestles with how to close a growing achievement gap between children from poor and wealthy families.
Many countries around the world require school uniforms, with advocates saying they bolster respect between students and teachers while reinforcing a
communal sense of belonging.
But they are relatively uncommon across much of Europe, with the notable exception of Britain.
Last June, 62 percent of parents in Provins voted in favour of a uniform emblazoned with a crest of the medieval city's famed Cesar Tower and the French motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.
Yet just a few children were wearing the new outfits Monday morning — officials didn't go so far as to make them mandatory.
An undated picture, probably taken in the 1960s, shows French school boys and school girls listening to a lesson in their classroom. Photo: AFP
“I was a little worried,” said eight-year-old Noe at his school's entrance.
“But I like it, because we're dressed like in 'Harry Potter',” he said.
At 137 euros ($155), the kit also includes matching trousers and an aviator-style jacket, though subsidies are available for families who can't afford it.
“About half the students will wear it,” said Mayor Olivier Lavenka of the rightwing Republicans party, who pushed for the vote as a way of easing social discrimination.
“It's an experiment, and in a few years we'll see how it has worked out.”
'Return' to uniforms?
Traditionally uniforms have been the preserve of private schools, often Catholic institutions in the nicer parts of French towns.
But recently more parents have been calling for uniforms as a way to promote social cohesion, in particular in deprived neighbourhoods, and ease the resentments that can emerge over how different kids are dressed.
French children in deprived areas are four times more likely to end up struggling than students in higher income areas, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has found.
On this measurement, France was the worst performing of 36 major economies measured by the respected Paris-based research institute, far behind Britain or the United States but also Brazil and Mexico.
Two candidates in last year's presidential campaign, rightwinger Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, called for a “return to uniforms”.
Historians note there has never been such a policy in French public schools.
Students did have to wear aprons or smocks until the late 1960s, but only to avoid stains from using fountain pens and ink wells.
“Lots of people have this memory of uniformed smocks, but it's a reconstructed memory — you only have to look at class photos from that era,” education historian Claude Lelievre said.
Since 2013, three proposals have been lodged in parliament urging uniforms in public schools, but have gone nowhere.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has indicated he's in favour of the measure for schools which want it, but has not called for nationwide implementation.
Lavenka, the Provins mayor, noted that school uniforms are common in the French overseas territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Like other advocates, Lavenka says they will help induce “an improved education climate” by reinforcing a sense of belonging to the same school body — while also making it easier for getting kids dressed in the morning.
His move echoes the growing demand for publicly funded charter schools in the US, which often tout their use of uniforms as a core part of their high-achieving strategies.
Yet critics say there is little solid research to back up such claims, not least because uniforms are often part of a broader push to improve academic performance.
“There has never been a serious empirical study showing there is more social equality between students or respect for authority because of uniforms,” said Francoise Lantheaume, an education professor at the University of Lyon-2.
Some parents also remained sceptical.
“They are going to be faced with social differences their entire lives,” said Stephanie Meiria, whose daughter attends one of the town's six public schools.
“And my daughter loves picking out her own clothes, I don't want to take that away from her.”