Revolution on the Mediterranean

By Lina Petry, September 2018

My voluntary service with Culture Minister Françoise Nyssen in Arles.

The advert for the “École Domaine du Possible” on the website of the “Friends of Waldorf Education” sounded great. A newly established school in the middle of the wild and romantic natural environment of the Camargue, committed teachers, a revolutionary, optimistic concept, a flat in Arles – perfect for dipping my toes into the world of work after the intellectually focused years of school! Those were my thoughts as I looked for somewhere to do my voluntary service in the middle of sitting my university entrance exams. It had to be France, for the sake of love – of the landscape and the sea air, of course.

What I experienced in Arles was anything but a rural idyll. For the excitement which burst in on us in the spring of 2017 swept away any semblance of a quiet rural atmosphere. What had happened? A minor revolution: the founder of the school, Françoise Nyssen, with no political experience, had been appointed as French minister of culture – a sensation.

When on 7 May the telephone rang in the small office of Françoise and the newly elected state president, Emmanuel Macron, was at the other end of the line, time seemed to stand still in our school. But only briefly. As we know, the head of publisher Actes Sud acceded to his request and made her way to Paris. It is hard to imagine the effect of a ministerial job on someone with hardly any political experience until then – even harder to imagine the effect when this minister had founded a school barely a year before.

From this time onwards the school was subject to a real media frenzy. The largest French TV station TF1 and the most influential newspapers in France, Le Figaro and Le Monde, were only the vanguard of all the others who called the head of the school, Henri Dahan, by the hour to obtain inside information about Nyssen and her “small alternative education project”. With a torrent of more than 600 applications for a place at the school and almost the same number of job enquiries from teachers from all over the world which arrived from early May onwards, our secretary was buried by the daily pile of mail. From that time onwards I only every saw Henri Dahan with a cup of strong espresso in his hand and the phone glued to his ear.

Françoise Nyssen had created something extraordinary with this school and the French media scrambled for information about a woman who overnight had become the darling of the nation.

After more than a year in office, Nyssen today still stands for the spirit of the future. In her New Year’s address she spoke about giving the Mona Lisa out on loan and turning station concourses into cultural spaces.

Against the fusty system

Out of precisely the same spirit she had founded the school in 2015 together with her husband Jean-Paul Capitani. After the loss of their sun Antoine, who took his own life at the age of 19 for reasons which included an extremely difficult time at school, the entrepreneur simply founded a new school instead of complaining about old systems. Starting something new – nothing is a more painful indicator for the French education system than the people who finally manage to move beyond what has gone before, even if they cannot sweep it away. There are and have been numerous voices calling for the reform of educational methods in France – and only the smallest minority of them are taken seriously at all.

I myself had become familiar with France’s fusty classrooms and teaching concepts during an exchange three years previously at the Lycée Jean Moulin in Béziers. A large grey building and frontal teaching from eight in the morning to seven at night. Many French pupils see daylight rarely if at all in the winter since they are sent to all-day care from kindergarten onwards. Walks, music making, riding lessons and support with homework? Missing in the state system and – how could it be otherwise? – naturally at the top of the curriculum which Françoise Nyssen drew up for her future pupils with the former chairman of the French Association of Waldorf Schools, Henri Dahan.

Then there is eurythmy, drama, vegetarian organic food, excursions to nature reserves and weather stations, concerts and large summer festivals. Given all of this, I was not at all surprised that this woman was appointed minister of culture.

Founding a school is not simple

But what such hype does to a school that is in the midst of its birth pangs is tricky. Because if you promise a lot you have to keep a lot of promises. When the reporters descended on the school in May it could look back on just six months of school activity. Six months which, although idyllically planned, were full of crises, as I experienced at first hand. The conversion of the school building, lessons between pneumatic drills and fresh paint on the walls – there are better ways to foster a group sense among first class pupils. Even if Nyssen and Dahan spared no resources to make the school start as brilliant and successful as possible – all those involved already had an exhausting time behind them before the storm broke.

Uncertainty and mental stress were as much part of everyday school life as German and maths. The atmosphere between colleagues was often tense due to the constant new challenges and the lack of time to deal with them. For the timetable of the pupils and, above all, the teachers was already well filled with the normal everyday life of the school. There was no more room for unforeseen events in the pocket diaries of Henri Dahan and his colleagues – but they had to be managed all the same.

My days, too, were well filled. As a rule I assisted in the kindergarten and was involved in preparing various activities. I helped with lunch and sang lullabies to the children for their afternoon nap. Additionally I was often in the school and assisted in German lessons and the cookery course, helped in the garden or laid the table for the pupils for lunch. I also supported the school orchestra once a week in the violins.

When the news came that Nyssen had been appointed a minister, that was a shock not just for me. For even if there had been rumours that Emmanuel Macron had been to dinner at the house of Nyssen-Capitani – no one had expected him to appoint her a minister.

After that the pressure on all staff rose immeasurably for the eagle eyes of the media followed every step we took.

Optimism and belief in a life worth living

To keep a steady hand on the tiller and nevertheless give 110 pupils a stable school routine is probably only possible with invincible optimism. Fortunately for Françoise Nyssen and her husband, Henri Dahan embodies such optimism like no other. Even before the school opened, he wrote a book about impulses which make children happy and are intended to teach them about life. Together with the founders, he organised very special events during my year there. The publishing bosses have an exceptional contacts book and for their personal project they set the wires buzzing. Ecological activists and authors such as the humanist Pierre Rabhi and the Indian critic of globalisation Vandana Shiva – both published by Actes Sud – gave lectures at my school and debated with the children. Musicians and actors came to visit and presented their art to the pupils – that was not just exciting for the teenagers but also motivating: I want to do that too!

It is to be hoped that the fire which burns in Françoise Nyssen and her colleagues is not smothered by the strain but continues to burn brightly and make the leap to the whole of the French education system through the fortuitous event of her ministerial post. In my École Domaine du Possible I learnt about both sides, the calmness and enthusiasm as much as the excitement and confusion; not just after the Macron storm, but also before that already through this new educational initiative which was built out of nothing.

I am very happy about both, even if I often fell into bed exhausted at night. I also feel gratitude for having met Françoise Nyssen – as a normal citizen and, unexpectedly, a minister.

About the author: Lina Petry (21) is studying philosophy, art and society at Alanus University.


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