Sunday, March 29, 2009

France called on the rights-of-the-child carpet

France is famous for its bureaucracy. For decades, records were kept on oversized index cards called fiches (photo credit), which come in pretty pastel shades of green, blue, yellow and pink, as well as the ubiquitous white. And unlike the oh-so-scholastic lines one finds on index cards in the US, the standard French fiche has a neat scientific grid. Bureaucratic fiches, however, resemble disembarcation cards, with little boxes to check or fill in with specific information. I filled out 2 every year my daughter was in elementary school: one with medical information in case of an emergency, and one with general contact information. I never could understand why we had to fill them out every year - you'd think it would be simpler (and more ecological) to request that parents submit new ones only if any information had changed. Well, in its search for greater efficiency, the National Education Ministry switched in 2004 to an electronic database (middle schools and high schools began using one in 1995). Good-bye tedious little green cards, hello Big Brother! Or at least, that's how some parents and teachers feel about it. And they've been able to convince the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child they are not simply paranoid: France must explain to the Committee before April 6 "what public service purpose is served" by maintaining a database at the national level that contains among its 50 elements not only students' names, but also their nationality, year of arrival in France, medical and psychological history, and handicap. France will also have to explain why parents do not enjoy the right to oppose having such information appear in the database, or what the consequences of refusing to provide the information are. Never before was such information kept by the Education Ministry, whose business is education, not administration. Instead, the local town hall kept the rolls of who was enrolled in school and who was not, the schools kept scholastic records, and that was that. Many parents and teachers think this is just as it should be. But the new database is managed by the Education Ministry; the local town hall may consult only portions of it.
While none of us like the idea that our names are on a blacklist somewhere, the French have a particularly strong reaction to what's called fichage (being on a fiche) and, more recently, flicage (being watched or at least kept track of by the cops; from flic, a slang word for policeman). The preoccupation with nominative, rather than anonymous, administrative databases stems from the fichage of Jews and other "undesirables" and their subsequent rounding up for deportation to concentration camps during WWII. The concern is particularly strong with respect to school children, because at least some of those shipped off to the camps were denounced by their teachers (credit photo left of a typical plaque commemorating deported schoolchildren). Two other concerns are grounded in recent events that pose a more immediate threat than does a new occupation of France. One, the database could help the administration identify and round up illegal immigrants or, as in the case of Jaya's post Friday, the parents of child citizens. Two, the idea was recently circulated that a child's future as a delinquent can be determined as early as age 3, if not before. Since French children begin school at age 3 (nursery schools are public), the database could be used to peg kids as future criminals. These concerns have led some teachers to boycott the database despite sanctions including salary reductions, and a group of parents and teachers, joined by the International Federation of Human Rights, has brought lawsuits to try to have the law instituting the database abrogated. So far they've been unsuccessful. It will be interesting to see what the UN has to say.

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