Faced with the ever-increasing number of schoolkids who report being bullied in France, a group of bikers are using their tough image to help prevent bullying and get victims to open up.
“There's a French saying, 'clothes don't make the man', but I don't think that's true,” says Bernard Mignot. With his long, bushy beard, bandana, tattoos, leather jacket and jewellery, the retired bodyguard and security consultant embodies the biker look.
“When we go out on the road, sometimes 30 of us on our motorbikes, we get noticed for sure,” he says.
In Brittany, north-west France, Mignot and his biker mates are also getting noticed in schools, as members of Ubaka (Urban Bulldogs Against Kids Abuse).
Set up in North America some 25 years ago, the association now has branches worldwide. Mignot opened the French chapter in late 2015 after a biker friend returned from the US singing its praises.
“Over there they focus on child abuse, but French legislation wouldn't allow us to get involved in that,” Mignot explains. "So we decided to help fight school bullying instead.”
Listen to more on the Ubaka initiative on the Spotlight on France podcast:
While he was never bullied himself, Mignot realised there was work to be done after a friend, whose son was being harassed at school, asked him and his mates to help.
“We went to the school, met the boys who were doing the bullying and kind of warned them, nicely, made them understand they had to stop messing around. That made us realise we could do more to help,” he says.
Ubaka Brittany now has some 90 members. They will, on occasion, still turn up on their bikes outside the schoolgates to pick up a kid, give the bullies a harsh stare and send a message: “If you mess with our friend, you'll have us to reckon with.”
“It's about shifting the balance of power,” Mignot explains, “putting the idea in the bully's mind that we could be aggressive – which of course we are not.”
There's a lot of work to be done.
An estimated one in ten kids in France will be bullied at some point during their school years, and with the advent of social media and smartphones, their suffering is no longer confined to the classroom.
The French government has deemed the fight against bullying a national priority.
A law introduced in 2021 made bullying an offence punishable with fines, and even prison sentences for those over 18. And the government's anti-bullying programme Phare, first launched in 2022, is being expanded to include training anti-bullying brigades and introducing empathy classes in all primary schools from next year.
Mignot welcomes the plan but says it “lacks human interaction”.
That's precisely Ubaka's strong point. “The way we look, the image, but also my frank way of speaking keeps the kids' attention,” he says.
Mignot got authorisation from the French education authority to go into schools and now intervenes at the request of teachers, parent representatives or parents themselves.
His group goes mainly into primary and middle schools to interact via role play with children aged around 9 to 14.
While kids find it difficult to confide in figures of authority, Mignot says they see the bikers differently.
“We also tell them that in the biking culture you have to respect yourself and one another,” he says.
Help from outside
Bullying has driven several youngsters in France to take their own lives.
That terrifying prospect encouraged Fabienne Le Gal, director of St Helene primary school in Morbihan, Brittany, to contact Ubaka.
“Prevention is better than cure,” she says. “It's terrible to see the suicides in middle schools. We talk a lot about bullying among ourselves, as teachers, but it's all going so fast, you can't spot everything, so you need input from outside.”
Last month, Ubaka members parked their bikes in the school courtyard and addressed a group of 9 and 10 year olds. Using a cuddly mascot called René, they encouraged the kids to write about anything they wanted to share and leave their messages in the toy monkey's backpack.
“It worked really well, several children wrote notes, they felt comfortable,” reports Le Gal. “These burly men in leather jackets made a strong impression. Even the 10- and 11-year-old boys who like to act tough were attentive.”
Mignot says they've received several calls from mothers whose children had tried to take their own lives and “no longer knew where to turn”.
In such cases, the bikers will offer to go and meet the child at home and try to win their trust.
“We've saved three lives,” he claims, citing a girl and two teenage boys who had made suicide attempts.
Madelyne Van Eenoo, now 22 and still living in her native Brittany, tried to take her own life after years of bullying at school. The harassment began when she was a chubby 8 year old with ginger hair, and then continued on social media in middle school.
“I was more or less excluded from the group, but I didn't talk to anyone about it, not even my parents,” she says. “My stomach was in knots, but I carried on going to school.”
She met Mignot and Ubaka when she was over the worst. She wishes she'd known them earlier.
“If Ubaka had been around before, perhaps I'd have spoken about all of this sooner. It would have done me good.”
First lady's approval
Mignot says France's first lady Brigitte Macron – an anti-bullying campaigner – told the group, via a local MP, to “keep up the good work”.
But on several occasions, local education authorities have denied them entry to schools.
“The pretext is that we're not on the list of approved associations in the Phare plan,” Mignot explains.
He's reluctant to apply for the approval due to logistical constraints.
“Most people are working during school hours so the only volunteers available are retirees. I would like to have younger volunteers but it's difficult,” he says.
A certain rock and roll attitude also runs deep.
“We don't want to be in the Phare programme, we have our own methods,” says Mignot, still a rebel at heart. “We know what we're doing.”