Céline Rault and Christla Petitberghien
28 Février 2024

The Sciences Po Law Clinic serves as a bridge between academia and civil society, providing an experiential learning platform for students to address real-world legal challenges and promote social change. Collaborating closely with the Right to Education Initiative (RTE) for the past five years, the clinic and the organisation have implemented a right to education project on monitoring and reporting on inequalities and discrimination in higher education in France, including by bringing the issue to the UN. This project aimed to advance the realisation of the right to education, focusing on monitoring and reporting inequalities and discrimination in higher education in France, through research, the publication of several documents  and the stimulation of debates with the organisations of various round tables.

Last year, five students contributed to preparing a shadow report for France's review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, evaluating the country's compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), particularly as regards the right to education. Two of us, Christla Petitberghien and Céline Rault, met with several stakeholders, including students, parents, academics and State representatives, in order to inform them about the report and include their perspectives. The insightful discussions were held in March and April 2023, shedding light on critical issues affecting the right to education for all in France. They are reflected below.

Inequalities, scholarships and information: the union perspective

In March 2023, the higher education minister Sylvie Retailleau announced an increase in scholarships and the inclusion of more students in the scholarship system. The spokesperson of the student union Fédération des Associations Générales Etudiantes (La FAGE) at that time, explained that in the short-term, they are campaigning for the extension of the scholarship system to more students. However, in the long- term, la FAGE is campaigning for the universality of social assistance. From their perspective, the current system does not take into account personal family relationships and it benefits wealthier families. Another topic of the conversation was the inequalities created by the particular costs of some programmes of study. Teaching materials, specific equipment and compulsory travelling can be required in some cases. In August, they published their annual report about the cost of the start of the university year which shows an increase in comparison to 2022. Their data were including in the shadow report submitted to the CESCR around that time too.

Better guidance of high schoolers to improve access to higher education: What role should parents and parent unions play?

As inequalities in high school are interlinked with inequalities in higher education, we exchanged with representatives of parents’ unions. The first conversation was held with the Fédération des Parents d'Elèves de l'Enseignement Public (Parents of Publicly Educated Pupils Federation) (PEEP) which seeks to improve the guidance of highschoolers and their parents regarding future study choices. As families often finance the studies of their children, Catherine Haroutounian, the President of PEEP Sup fédérale, emphasised that parents should be well-informed. They should for instance be aware of the marketing techniques of some schools, and of the privatisation of some career fairs. However, parents should not be the main actor in their children’s orientation process, as study patterns are evolving. 

We also had an exchange with Fatiha Elhamed from the Union Nationale des Associations Autonomes de Parents d'Élèves (National Union of Autonomous Parents' Associations) (UNAPEE) who raised several important issues. One concern was the lack of access to food for students during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in tuition fees, prompting discussions on the impact of rising costs. UNAPEE has been addressing inequalities since 2007, particularly in relation to inclusive education and the lack of continuity in higher education. The issue of indirect expenses and the need for students to justify their financial means when choosing their educational paths were also discussed. UNAPEE highlighted inequalities within the current selection system to access higher education (Parcoursup); for instance, around 300 students in a French department were not assigned to any institution according. Parents expressed the need for more information, particularly regarding gap years, which are not always prioritised. The challenges of the algorithmic process of Parcoursup and the limited ability to revise choices were also highlighted. UNAPEE pointed out that the baccalaureate does not open all doors for students, and at times there is a lack of teachers. The importance of investing in education, including language education, and fostering curiosity was emphasised, with a call for increased budget allocation. The need for better pathways in high school and addressing orientation issues were also raised, along with questions regarding quotas for private actors and the impact of cordées de la réussite initiatives.

An academic perspective on the French education system

During our meeting with Professor Daniel Sabbagh, a renowned academic specialising in political science, we explored the concept of positive discrimination in the French context. Professor Sabbagh emphasised the replacement of ethno-racial criteria with economic and territorial factors in the French model of positive discrimination. In France, there is an equivalence between residing in certain areas and the likelihood of having parents with an immigrant background. He noted that, currently, there appears to be only one viable model of positive discrimination in the country, driven by constitutional and legislative norms that prohibit the direct use of ethnic criteria. Hence, the sole admissible criterion in France remains economic and territorial.

In the United States, it is possible to collect data and assess the success of positive discrimination policies. However, there are specific challenges in the French context, particularly regarding social housing policies aimed at promoting urban diversity and avoiding concentrations or clusters of foreign-born individuals—an approach that can be seen as contradictory. To gain a useful point of comparison, the United Kingdom, whose model is closer to that of France, was discussed. An important question arose regarding the potential acceptance of ethno-racial categorisation in France and the lack of knowledge about racial self-classification.

Within the French education system, there is room to expand affirmative action in higher education, such as implementing quotas based on the top-performing students from each high school, aiming to promote diversity. The universalist approach aligns with the republican model, focusing on addressing structural parameters such as underfunding of universities and the decreasing diversity within prestigious institutions. It was emphasised that while it may not be necessary to dismantle institutions like grandes écoles, it is crucial to rebalance the allocation of funds.

Additionally, the discussion touched upon practical issues and the presence of various lobbying efforts. There is a growing trend of implementing positive actions, such as visiting high schools to encourage access to certain educational paths and conveying the message that access to specific programs is possible.

In this insightful conversation with Professor Sabbagh, we gained valuable perspectives on the complexities and possibilities surrounding positive discrimination in France's education system, shedding light on potential areas for policy and structural interventions to promote greater equality and diversity.

Inequalities in access to higher education through the lens of gender and ethno-racial inequalities: zooming in on the ACADISCRI research project

Géraldine Bozec is a member of the coordinating team for the ACADISCRI research project on inequalities, discrimination and study and working conditions in higher education and research in France. This project focuses on the experience of discrimination, given that reporting rates do not always reflect the actual levels which occur. As an example, while there seems to be more sensitivity and reporting of “ordinary sexism”, reporting rates of violence seem to vary between study paths. Equality missions have only started being structured over the last few years, particularly since 2011, and there is still a need for better communication about existing anti-discrimination mechanisms at universities. Discussing the research project ACADISCRI with Géraldine Bozec gave us valuable insights into inequalities in access to higher education through the lens of gender and ethno-racial inequalities. 

Addressing discrimination through administrative channels

Our exchange with Valérie Fontaine, Advisor for partnerships, and Nina Schmidt, Responsible for educating young people about rights, both at the Defender of Rights, follows on from the study day organised in October 2022 by the Defender of Rights called “Discrimination in higher education: from observation to action”. Fontaine and Schmidt describe the Defender of Rights as a French independent administrative authority, among whose missions is to fight against direct or indirect discrimination. This also includes discrimination in higher education. As such, they engage in dialogue with stakeholders such as institutions and student unions. In 2017 the platform of resources “Educadroit” was launched, with the aim of raising children’s and young people’s awareness on their rights, in 2021 the platform Antidiscriminations.fr was launched. This latter platform provides guidance and legal assistance to victims of discrimination. Overall, the conversation with Valérie Fontaine and Nina Schmidt has greatly benefited our understanding of the Defender of Rights’ mandate, and specifically our understanding of their work and mechanisms to fight discrimination in higher education.


The collaborative efforts of the Sciences Po Law Clinic in partnership with the Right to Education Initiative (RTE) and various stakeholders have illuminated critical issues pertaining to the right to education in France.

Through insightful discussions with students, parents’ unions, academics, and administrative authorities, the clinic has shed light on the multifaceted nature of inequalities and discrimination in the French education system. The respective means of action and priorities of various actors were highlighted, and the steps taken as regards to these priorities. To cite only some examples, some initiatives have included the creation of equality missions, the Cordées de la Réussite initiatives or the launch of the platform Antidiscriminations.fr. Priorities may shift as a response to current challenges, such as addressing the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for students. The exchanges also brought to our attention supplementary aspects of inequalities not studied within this clinic, such as ethno-racial inequalities and the subjective experience of discrimination.

We would like to thank all partners for their time, insights and the resources shared. Directly engaging with stakeholders from various backgrounds has been a great opportunity for us to complete the research conducted by the clinic during the past five years, and to include the most recent developments on equal access to higher education in France in our work. 




Céline Rault
Céline Rault is a master's student in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po Paris). She initially developed a strong interest in promoting equal access to education by volunteering with children from disadvantaged groups throughout her Bachelor studies. She has since then continued to engage in the topic, in particular, by taking part in the Sciences Po Law Clinic in partnership with the Right to Education Initiative. 


Christla Petitberghien
Christla Petitberghien is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Human Rights at the Paris School of International Affairs within Sciences Po Paris. She hold Bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from the same institution. With a strong focus on promoting social justice and human rights both at the local and global scale, Christla engaged in practical legal work and policy advocacy through the Human Rights, Economic Development and Globalization Law Clinic within her master's program, particularly oriented on education initiatives in partnership with the Right to Education Initiative. 



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