Teachers on the front line of France’s struggle to defend secularism

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In the courtyard of Sorbonne University in Paris on Wednesday evening, President Emmanuel Macron celebrated the life of a teacher beheaded last week after trying to teach his students freedom of expression.

Samuel Paty was killed after showing his teenage cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, himself the victim of a deadly Islamist terrorist attack in 2015.

The 47-year-old history and geography teacher aimed to show the images: to spark a discussion around the secular values ​​that underpin the French Fifth Republic – part of the curriculum taught in every French school.

By hitting a teacher, the 18-year-old Chechen refugee who murdered Paty struck the heart of France. Since the end of the 19th century in France, the school has been the place where citizens are inculcated in republican values.

After the murder, huge rallies were held with signs reading “I am Samuel”. Promising to “take secularism to new heights”, Mr. Macron said on Wednesday that “the creation of French republican citizens, such was the struggle led by Samuel Paty”.

By beating a teacher, the 18-year-old Chechen refugee who murdered Paty struck in the heart of France © Michel Euler / AP

But for many of the teachers who are leading this struggle, this vocal support from the state has run into a lack of resources plaguing a system they feel has not valued the work they do.

After Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Tuesday that the school system was “pampered, Or darlings, the teachers knocked. A spokesperson for the French teachers’ union said that “cherishing is not exactly the reality experienced by our teachers”, while on Twitter several sarcastic responses were tagged # jesuischoyée.

Mr. Macron has placed schools at the heart of his vow to crack down on Islamist extremism and “separatism” in France, including banning home education from September next year.

More than 50,000 children in France are home-schooled, and Mr Macron said that number was growing rapidly, jeopardizing the state’s ability to integrate migrant populations living in isolated suburbs.

The French concept of secularism is at the heart of the integration debate. For its defenders, secularism – the strict version of secularism behind the laws banning the headscarf in school, which has its roots in a 19th century struggle which resulted in the passage of the 1905 law on the separation of the Church and the Church ‘State – guarantees freedom of belief and thought. But for its detractors, it has become a vector of discrimination against the Muslim population of France.

Promising to “take secularism to new heights”, President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that “the creation of French republican citizens, such was the struggle led by Samuel Paty” © Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty

“There are now those who say that there is an increase in religious pressure in society, so we should expand the space where religion does not figure. While there are others who say: “no, no, everything is fine, we will keep it as is”, said Patrick Weil, professor at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University and author of How to be French: the nationality in the making since 1789.

During the previous school year, 935 reports of “violations of secularism“From threats to teachers to refusing to engage in certain activities. Teachers complain about a lack of support.

The problem of teachers in France is not new, said Jean-Pierre Obin, former national inspector of French schools. He is the author of a 2004 report on “the signs and manifestations of religious affiliation in schools”, which was presented to then Prime Minister François Fillon but, according to Mr. Obin, never acted on.

Mr. Obin believes that three things are necessary: ​​an effort to desegregate the suburbs of the big cities; increased training of teachers, in particular on how to promote secular values; and a means of attracting talented people to the upper echelons of the education system.

Only 6% of teachers have been trained to teach secularism Obin said, adding that “about 38% of teachers censor themselves when teaching potentially offensive subjects, and that number increases to 54% in schools in disadvantaged areas.”

A young French teacher in such a neighborhood, in Nanterre west of Paris, admits that she would censor herself regularly, fearing that she would complain otherwise and that her bosses would not support her.

“No, I don’t feel safe. If I have to show a movie with a nude scene or a couple kissing, there will be screaming, and not just normal teenage stuff, real aggression, kids saying it’s not OK, it’s not allowed, ”she said, asking his name not to be used.

“The government talks about our importance, but we don’t have enough resources. I had to buy my own books, my materials. I had to look for money for travel. . . And the size of the classes continues to grow, ”she added.

Julien Marsay, professor of literature and philosophy in another suburb north of the capital, declared that “teachers earn less and have to work more” and that “students are simply not listened to”.

While in the poor suburb of Champigny-sur-Marne in the south-east of Paris, Asma Ashraf, a 46-year-old woman of Pakistani origin who heads an organization to help families, said that many Muslims around they feel targeted. through Mr. Macron’s message on separatism.

“Part of the problem is that parents here don’t always understand what secularism ” she says. Mothers do not understand when they are told that they cannot wear the veil on school trips. There has to be a way to teach this outside of schools as well. ”

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain

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