There are few things that French people like better than a good chewy talking point. It doesn't have to be about anything momentous, though no-one wants to be thought too earnest about the wholly frivolous. Reality TV, which does exist in France, wouldn't do at all. But so long as there is room for positions to be robustly adopted and defended on both sides of the argument, then any issue that can enliven conversation at the dinner table or in the café is welcome.
Which is how it has been here this past fortnight over the improbable endorsement by Brigitte Macron, wife of the French President, for a proposal to bring back uniforms in French schools. The proposal was thrown out decisively by the Assemblée National within hours of her backing it. But that has done little to curb speculative chatter as to what prompted, or possessed, Mme Macron.
Her intervention was surprising for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the stylish chatelaine of the Elysée has been for the most part prudently cautious about speaking out on anything very much. With her husband's re-election to a second term now secure, she would appear to have decided that her tongue may be allowed to loosen a little.
On several occasions, she has let rip against the intrusion of 'wokeism' into the French language, and specifically the concoction of gender-neutral nouns and pronouns, as previously described in Scottish Review
. This was a shrewd dip into the waters of controversy, since the sanctity of the French language (however much it may be debased in practice) is an ideal to which ritual deference is paid across the political spectrum. Wokeism is symbolic of the Americanisation which no-one in France can afford to be caught not hating. So, perfect First Lady fodder: punchy, but safe.
Bringing back school uniform, for which she declared support in a newspaper interview, is an issue of altogether different connotations. This lurch of nostalgic whimsy was encapsulated in a parliamentary bill promoted by, of all people, Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National (RN). The word tainted scarcely seems up to the task. Some suspect that the RN's real agenda is to stop Muslim kids being dressed in any trappings of their faith. In other words, it could hardly be more unambiguously conservative... which is not a posture helpful to Mme Macron's husband.
Emmanuel Macron may fancy himself as a radical reformer, but he looks about as hip as a Rolex ad: the very essence of the groomed, privileged, hyper-educated Parisian establishment. Brigitte, 24 years his senior, has been credited with bringing a welcome dash of boomer boho to the act. She was a swinging (and married) teacher of literature and drama who risked a fling with one of her pupils, young Emmanuel. You would expect anyone with that sort of background to dismiss the re-imposition of school uniforms unhesitatingly as an authoritarian and reactionary proposition.
Which it is. In France as in Britain, all the very worst public policy ideas, especially in respect of education, invariably begin with the words 'bring back'; though school uniforms were never quite universally compulsory in France (Napoleon tried). They pretty much disappeared altogether a generation – Mme Macron's generation – ago.
In truth, any sort of formality in dress stands at odds with contemporary French culture, certainly at this southern end of the country. You can go weeks, even months, in Montpellier without ever seeing a tie. Visit the notary at work, the teacher, the civil servant, even the mayor and you will be received by someone in jeans and a casual shirt. My GP, a twinkling Belgian grandmother, habitually conducts her surgery in wet-look skinnies and silver baseball boots. Mme Macron's claim that school uniform 'erases differences' could not be more wrong. It would impose a dress code on teenagers that was provocatively different from the freedoms exercised by everyone around them. You need hardly be surprised if they reacted defiantly: so they should.
One speaks here (with a shudder) from experience. It's not just that the uniform of the school where I was a detainee was surpassingly ugly, though it was. Which of us has ever, as a free-willed adult, chosen to wear the sort of shades and fabrics inflicted by our school uniforms?
We should dispel the fiction that school uniforms act as a leveller, sparing the children of poorer homes the ignominy of not being able to afford swanky gear. The last thing on earth a fee-grabbing school like mine was interested in was levelling. Let's also not be so naïve as to underestimate the ingenuity of kids in finding outlets for one-upmanship. Our uniform was far from immune to the instincts for superiority that private schooling nurtures. A nominal conformity could always be subverted, either with subtle accessories and refinements that conveyed, albeit in coded form, differentials of social strata that would confound Nancy Mitford; or else by affecting a calculated slobbery, competing for who could make the costume most resemble a turnip sack. By dint of family economics and personal disposition, I generally pursued the latter strategy.
I like to think I was resentful too that a school which charged my parents hefty sums in return for a patina of middle-class polish and some wildly uneven teaching standards should expect us to do their marketing for them. They might as well have issued us with sandwich boards. What's more, the rules said that whenever you were in uniform you were subject to the byzantine discipline of the school, even if you were miles away. Since the outfit was conspicuous to say the least, and since many outsiders despised the privilege it purported to advertise, any misdemeanour was likely to be phoned in with some glee. Let slip a mild 'damn' at the bus-stop, or sneak a Players No.6 in the park, and you could anticipate an early summons to retribution.
The bottom line is that uniforms are about suppressing self-expression and individuality. Education, you might think, should be about the exact opposite.
So what possessed Mme Macron to let this withered old genie out of the bottle? What did she hope to achieve? If there is a demand for a reversion to uniform from educators or parents or, least likely, students, then it is a long way short of clamorous. Besides, you need only glance at the kids who cram into Montpellier's trams from the écoles and lyceés to see that they already have a uniform: baseball caps, ripped jeans, trainers, Doc Martens optional for girls, phones mandatory for all. Junkyard chic is at least as much of a leveller as a blazer and tie. Why force them to swap a uniform they choose for a fustier one they have to be coerced to wear?
One columnist, somewhat cattily, attributed the outburst to the approach of Brigitte Macron's 70th birthday, as though potty ideas are to be expected from someone of that Methuselan age. This theory must be challenged, for three reasons. First, it is ungallant. Second, everybody knows that 70 these days is no great age at all, especially those of us who are not all that far short of it. And, third, the whys of Brigitte Macron's intervention are every bit as much fun to argue about over a companionable aperitif as the whethers.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster