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PARIS – In the Land of Lights, shadows are hanging over French schools.
Those shadows darkened after an assailant beheaded Samuel Paty, a history teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on free speech.
During a memorial service for Paty at the Sorbonne on Wednesday, President Emmanuel Macron said: “We will continue this fight for freedom and reason of which you are now the face, because we owe it to you, because we owe it. to ourselves, because in France, professor, the lights will never go out.
Macron’s mention of “the lights” was also a reference to the French.e intellectuals of the century at the heart of the Enlightenment. But the president’s call for teachers to play an even bigger role in the fight for their values calls on many who feel disappointed with the French state and angry with its government.
Teachers say they are largely left alone to deal with complex issues such as how to defend secularism in the face of radical Islamism in the face of violence and verbal attacks.
French teachers also claim that violence against them has not been taken seriously enough, that their salaries are among the lowest in Europe for their profession, working conditions are poor, young teachers are thrown into difficult neighborhoods with little preparation and the workload is overwhelming.
Although many of these problems predate Macron, teachers accuse his government of failing to address them or of making them worse. The department of the Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer is particularly unpopular.
“According to the major surveys that I have carried out, teachers do not feel protected by the institution and think that the day they have difficulties, they will be dismissed”, declared Laurent Frajerman, historian specializing in political commitment of teachers.
Teachers blame Macron and Blanquer for deteriorating working conditions, thousands of job cuts and a dysfunctional educational bureaucracy.
Yet now Macron is asking teachers to redouble their efforts to meet the long-standing challenge of defending and promoting the French concept of secularism without stigmatizing or marginalizing believers.
Teachers as torchbearers
Secularism, or secularism in French, is at the heart of the country’s self-image, many believe that nothing, including religious faith or political opinions, should come before a citizen’s identity as a member of the French Republic.
This belief is believed to translate into equal treatment of all citizens, as well as values of tolerance and freedom of expression (with limits related to Holocaust denial, defamation, and speech by hatred). And public school teachers are seen as torchbearers who instill and defend it.
But the growing tensions between the ideal of French secularism and the daily practice of teaching in areas where conservative and radical interpretations of Islam have a strong hold have not been managed properly, according to an experienced school inspector. in more than 35 schools.
In recent years, he said, he has seen teachers having to deal with Muslim students hiding their eyes from depictions of pigs on George Orwell’s animal farm, verbal attacks on accused science teachers to speak out against the truths of God and threats to report teachers to a local imam.
“If people kill their teacher, it’s also because we let this kind of bullshit set in,” the 60-year-old said angrily.
The inspector – who like many others interviewed for this story insisted on anonymity, given the sensitivity of the issues – said the education ministry had not helped teachers deal with these situations.
Paty, the teacher killed last week, showed the cartoons in a civic education class in Conflans-Saint-Honorine, north-west of Paris. He reportedly warned children who might be offended by the images to look away.
But some parents complained about the lesson to the school administration. The teacher’s online review brought him to the attention of the abuser, who had no previous connection to the school.
At another suburban high school, students threatened to bring Kalashnikov rifles to class after a teacher showed such cartoons, according to another teacher.
“In two weeks the teacher was transferred, the [schools’] The General Inspectorate came and the students were questioned by the police, because the director reacted quickly ”, declared the professor. “At the time, we thought it was disproportionate because we are used to the extreme reactions of our students.”
Yet teachers – much like French society as a whole and other Western countries – are divided over how and even if liberal values such as freedom of expression can be reconciled with radical interpretations of the Islam, such as those who would tolerate violence for performances of Muhammad.
The school inspector said he considered Islam and all other religions to be incompatible with his view of secularism in schools.
But an English teacher working in the Paris suburbs said teachers should be sensitive to the offense caused by Muhammad’s cartoons.
“The cartoons divide, they hurt,” she said, arguing that Muslims in France feel stigmatized and not supported by their government.
“The fight against terrorism begins by giving a place to children of immigrant origin, recreating a relationship of trust,” she added.
In conversations with POLITICO, teachers also pointed out that the roots of divisions over religious identity and freedom of expression are complex, including politics, conflicts abroad, racism and social marginalization – problems that they cannot affect.
A teacher noted that Paty’s murderer had an internal political connection to his crime.
“Paty wasn’t just killed for showing cartoons. The terrorist also said he was Macron’s dog, ”the professor said.
Macron gave a speech three weeks ago outlining a series of measures to fight radical Islamism. While the speech was hailed by some commentators as a balanced approach to the issue, it was described by others as stigmatizing Muslims.
Low salary, high stress
Dealing with such complex and dangerous issues is only part of the challenge of being a teacher in France.
In the country of the Sorbonne and Rousseau, five years of higher education to qualify as a teacher lead to a starting salary close to the French minimum wage (€ 1,521 gross per month).
Teachers in France are often caricatured as lazy and often on strike. But surveys by the OECD and the European Commission show that they are among the lowest paid teachers in Europe. Their hourly wage is lower than in Poland.
“For many years, one survey after another has shown that French teachers are dissatisfied with their working conditions,” explains Géraldine Farge, a sociologist who studies the education sector.
Violence at school – a problem that goes far beyond disputes over Islam and secularism – is also a major concern.
“In a forthcoming article on elementary school teachers, a representative sample was asked whether they had been verbally or physically assaulted by a student or parent – 32% said they had, which is pretty high, ”Farge said.
At the same school where students threatened to bring Kalashnikovs, one student who stabbed another was able to return to class two years later, before a member of staff noticed, according to the teacher familiar with this school.
“There is such a high turnover rate in these schools that no one has any recollection of what is going on,” the teacher said.
In France, the place of work of teachers is determined by a point system based mainly on experience. This means that young teachers often spend their first five to ten years in very difficult areas before they have enough points to leave.
Teachers complain about difficult working conditions, stress and an overload of bureaucratic work at the Ministry of Education.
A teacher from Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s poorest region, reported repeated absences from colleagues and schools where asbestos fell from the ceiling during lessons. Staff often have to deal with child victims of physical or sexual abuse, the teacher said.
Last year, the suicide of Christine Renon, school principal in Seine-Saint-Denis, highlighted the burden on teachers. Renon left a letter in which she complained of exhausting fatigue, the accumulation of administrative tasks and loneliness in the face of difficult relations with the parents of students.
Even in quieter places like Poitiers, a provincial town in western France, teachers are not immune to a feeling of unease.
“Some colleagues are cracking up because of an ever-increasing workload,” said one teacher. “Well-being at work is not a priority. I have been doing this job for 30 years, I have never seen a single occupational doctor.
In 2019, teachers launched the Red Pens movement, a riff on the anti-government Yellow Jackets protests, on Facebook to demand respect and better wages. In 2018, some used social networks to denounce a lack of support from their hierarchy in the face of school violence, using the ironic hashtag #pasdevague (“don’t make waves”).
Faced with new complaints about the treatment of teachers by the French state following Paty’s murder, Education Minister Blanquer vowed that the profession would be properly protected and recognized.
“This question existed before and we must answer it,” Blanquer told the French Senate on Wednesday. He added that a national roundtable on education would lead to “financial recognition, cooperation, that is, teamwork, modernization and protection.”
But experts doubt Blanquer will be able to win the trust of teachers in a renewed effort to instill Enlightenment values.
“He is a very unpopular minister, who has not been replaced [in a reshuffle] when everyone expected it. It was a slap in the face because he’s someone who was overwhelmingly rejected. Macron now pays for his choice: he has no one to open a dialogue, ”said historian Frajerman.