Sparing the rod may spoil the child, but wielding it can bring a world of trouble. French schoolteacher José Laboureur, 49, learned that lesson Wednesday when a criminal court in northern France convicted him of "aggravated violence" and fined him $750 for slapping a student who had insulted him with an unprintable word. Yet the real surprise is that French public opinion has come down resoundingly in favor of Laboureur's corporal approach towards imposing discipline in France's increasingly unruly classrooms.
On January 28, Laboureur, a middle school technology teacher, slapped an 11-year-old who responded with a vulgar epithet to Laboureur's orders to straighten up his desk. Summoned by the headmaster to confront the errant student and his parents, Laboureur acknowledged and apologized for delivering the blow, and received a verbal reprimand. But the father of the swatted child, a member of the local gendarmerie, considered that punishment too light. He filed a citizen's complaint for "violence against a minor," and his law enforcement colleagues brought Laboureur to the station, where he was questioned, fingerprinted, photographed, DNA-tested and jailed for nearly 24 hours.
Laboureur cried foul, complaining he "felt like a criminal being jailed" and suggesting that the father's position as a police official had led to treatment he decried as "completely out of proportion." Initial press reports and commentary on his case were dismissive of his claim of victimization; the pundits seemed far more concerned with how often legally prohibited corporal punishment takes place in French schools without anyone hearing about it.
But after being forced on the defensive, Laboureur soon found himself swept up by a wave of support. Parents and teachers, alarmed by increasing defiance of adult authority by children in classrooms and households alike, began responding in fury to attacks on Laboureur. Some condemned what they considered an American-styled political correctness, which reduces all conflicts to a vulnerable victim suffering the abuse of aggressors. In a nation that still celebrates the progressive ideals of the May 1968 student movement, the surge of backing for Laboureur's tough-line discipline took many observers by surprise.
Teachers' unions flocked to Laboureur's aid, and collected over 26,000 signatures in his defense. Another 40,000 people sent letters of support to the teacher's school in Maubeuge, near the Belgian border. Posts on the issue to the website of the leftist daily Libération ran 95% in favor of Laboureur's slap. Then the politicians got involved: French Prime Minister François Fillon said he wished the case had been left in the hand of education officials rather than dragged before the courts. Education Minister Xavier Darcos ordered Laboureur's school to discipline the slapped student, who was was promptly suspended from classes for three days.
Some education experts say the loud support for Laboureur reflects wider changes in French society. Primary among those are rising concerns, even on the left, that progressiveness has only encouraged worse behavior among young people. Fears are also growing that some of the brazen insubordination and even violence witnessed among youths in France's notorious suburban housing projects may now be cropping up as growing student assertiveness in classrooms in the nation's affluent city centers, and even sleepy burghs like Maubeuge. Polls show that a majority of French citizens back the use of limited corporal punishment to combat unruliness in schools.
Yet there is some evidence that such get-tough logic doesn't stand up to facts. French education experts who oppose corporal punishment cite official U.S. statistics showing the number of students reporting physical punishment from teachers fell by 42% between 1994 and 2004. During that same period, the percentage of American educators claiming they'd be verbally or physically abused by students halved, from 13% to 7%. That data is difficult for French supporters of the rod to dismiss as more weak-willed American PC suggesting as it does that clashes in classrooms generally decrease when both sides show a willingness to give one another a break, rather than a whack.