The French government has admitted that France is not up to the task in addressing school bullying, after the revelation that local education authorities sent a threatening letter to the parents of a boy who died by suicide after complaining of being bullied.

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The 15-year-old boy, named as Nicolas, killed himself on 5 September, the day after children went back to school across France following the summer break.

Nicolas had changed schools for the new term to attend an establishment in Paris, after his family had alerted authorities that he had been bullied at his previous school in Poissy, in the Yvelines département southwest of the capital.

Rather than expressing sympathy, the Yvelines regional education authorities based in Versailles sent a letter saying statements by the parents had been “unacceptable” and urged them to adopt a “constructive” attitude.

The letter said that slander in France can be a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in jail and a heavy fine of up to €45,000.

Education Minister Gabriel Attal denounced the letter as “shameful”, while Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne described the correspondence as “shocking…There was clearly a failure in the type of response addressed to parents who were extremely worried.”

Bullying is an ‘absolute priority’

Attal said at the weekend that inspectors had launched a probe into the incident, which would give its conclusions within two weeks and could lead to possible sanctions.

The boy had first complained of bullying in December 2022.

In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche Sunday paper, the boy’s mother said: “We were the victims but we were made the guilty ones.”

Versailles prosecutors are seeking to investigate whether the suicide was directly linked to bullying, and have warned against making any conclusions for now. 

While meeting with the boy’s family alongside first lady Brigitte Macron, Attal said that while he has “made the fight against bullying the absolute priority”, France is “still not up to the task.”

The 34-year-old minister has made tackling bullying a priority after a series of high-profile suicides of children in recent years who had complained of being bullied at school.

Suing TikTok 

In early September the parents of a 15-year-old girl who died by suicide in September 2021 filed a complaint against the social network TikTok for “incitement to suicide”, “failure to assist a person in danger” and “propaganda or advertising of means of committing suicide”.

On 16 September 2021 in southern town of Cassis, near Marseille, Marie’s parents found her hanging dead in her bedroom.

Like many teenagers, Marie was a frequent user of TikTok, and a few weeks before she took her own life she posted a video to talk about how unhappy she was and how fed up she was with being harassed about her weight.

The publication meant that other videos on the same theme were automatically shown to her on her account.

“The platforms, the social networks, play a role in dealing with a teenager who is already in an extremely fragile psychological state as a result of the harassment [she was] enduring,” Laure Boutron-Marmion, a lawyer for Marie’s parents, told France Info radio, criticising TikTok’s “extremely powerful algorithm”.

It was “indisputable that Marie was unhappy”, the lawyer said, and after expressing herself online, “through the algorithm, the teenager received a mass of videos on the same theme, which could only have led to her feeling even worse”.

Since Marie’s suicide, an investigation has been opened into the alleged harassment at school.

The Toulon public prosecutor’s office has stated that her parents’ complaint against TikTok merits in-depth analysis.

(with newswires)