Murdered school teacher revives sacred question of secularism in France

By Gaelle Legrand

AS a national tribute to the decapitated teacher takes place in Paris this Wednesday, the topic of secularism at school resurfaces among French society.

On October 16, Samuel Paty, a history teacher, was beheaded in front of his secondary school outside Paris.

The attack came weeks after he had shown Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad caricatures to his students during a class on freedom of speech.

The terrorist attack was described as a “fatwa” by interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, as the photo of the teacher’s head was published on the attacker’s Twitter account with the message: “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down.”

Following these revelations, the opposition parties Les Republicains (conservatives) and the Rassemblement National (far-right) have been calling for measures to combat islamism.

Among them, the leader of Les Republicains at the National Assembly Damien Abad proposed to close radicalised mosques and create a freephone number for teachers to report breaches of secularism.

His colleague Xavier Bertrand, a potential future candidate for the French presidential elections in 2022, proposed to include the word “Laïcité” (secularism) to the national motto ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’.

Speaking on French TV BFMTV on Tuesday morning, Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer announced that the late teacher would receive the Legion d’Honneur, the highest French order of Merit.

National Secular Society’s CEO Stephen Evans said: “The decision to award Samuel Paty France’s highest honour – the Legion d’Honneur, is an important statement of intent. It is incumbent on us all to defend liberal values and not be intimidated into submission.

“Anybody who cares about living in cohesive societies where citizens enjoy fundamental freedoms should reject the normalisation of blasphemy taboos. Freedom of expression must not have an asterisk next to it to protect religious sensitivities.”

Between September 2019 and March 2020, 935 breaches of secularism at school were listed in a study published by Mr Blanquer last week.

Why is secularism so important in France?

Secularism is described as the belief that religion should not be involved with the ordinary social and political activities of a country. It involves the separation of the state and the church, non-partisanship from the state to the church and pluralism of religions.

In France, this principle has been acted since the 1958 Constitution, stating that “France is a secular Republic”, as well as the 1905 Separation of State and Church Bill whose principles include freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and separation of worship and State.

Additionally, free and secular school is a fundamental right as of the 1882 Jules Ferry Laws. Exceptions reside in private schools (as opposed to public state schools), where an element of religion can be taught but where the curriculum must be the same as any other state school, as long as it receives funding from the state.

Université de Picardie Jules Verne lecturer in Science Education Ismail Ferhat said: “It is a historical topic. Since the Jules Ferry Laws, curriculas in Western Europe have been secularised.

“For a century, this question divided republicans and catholics up until the 1980s when private school was introduced.

“From that time as well, a new population descending from post-colonial immigration appeared. For a while, the French state had an optimistic view like in the UK.”

The banning of head scarfs, symbolised through the 1989 ‘scarf affair’ which saw three high school girls excluded from their school for refusing to remove their scarf, was a turning point according to Mr Ferhat.

An increase in breaches against secularism at school

Following this affair, the Ministry of Education started listing the number of breaches of secularism at school from 1994.

For Mr Ferhat who analysed the different reports, quantifying these breaches is a blurry matter.

He said: “The expression ‘breaches to secularism’ is very wide, and it is very difficult to describe it in concrete terms.

In an article published in 2019, Mr Ferhat already came to this conclusion: “Paradoxically, the Ministry of Education’s reports and those of other public institutions from the 2000s on breaches to secularism at school confirm that ‘no rigorous study is available’ on their real numbers – presuming this number could have been established in the first place.”

Indeed, the yearly report published by the Ministry of Education last week revealed that the numbers of breaches to secularism were stagnant compared to last year (totalling 935 infringements), with the number of reports of these breaches from schools to the authorities lowering.

The document emphasises that this decline does not mean a drop of the so-called “incidents”.

Examples of these breaches include the refusal to study scientific theories in conflict with their religion or novels such as Harry Potter on the basis that the book advocates witchcraft.

Other transgressions such as wearing religious symbols or clothing and refusing to practice sport or cultural activities were the most common challenges faced by education workers.

“The double turning point was the question of Islam behind it,” said Mr Ferhat.

“Up until 2004, the principle of secularism was intended for public service officers, which we have widened from that date to include users of public services.”

The report also shows that although students are the major authors of these infringements, parents are more and more vocal about the education of their children in what is commonly called “the school of the Republic”.

Mr Blanquer said: “Breaches from primary school students’ parents are increasing.”

Alongside the Ministry’s report, coincidental with the drama that shook France last week and while the Charlie Hebdo’s trial takes place, Mr Blanquer announced “a strict powerful national guidance” for the return of schoolchildren on November 2nd following the half-term holidays.

Early October, the French president Emmanuel Macron also announced a draft bill on separatism, to be presented on December 9.

Parts of the bill include a proposal for homeschooling to be strictly reduced to health issues, on the belief that homeschooling can often be a barrier to children joining mixed schools.

Today, only 50,000 children are taught through this method, representing only 0.5% of the total numbers of French schoolchildren.

Mr Ferhat said: “This draft bill has a legal problem because it falls under the freedom of education principle, which the Conseil Constitutionnel (the highest constitutional authority) will censor because this freedom cannot be restricted.

“Moreover, statistically, this number is not representative.

“What is important now is to support teachers. Very often, they feel abandoned and the line management may not have supported this teacher enough.”

Mr Ferhat recognises an one-upmanship on secularism, arguing that debates about it have increased through society as a solution to some youngsters’ drift.

He said: “I don’t think teaching more secularism to young people would be very useful. Can school answer all problems? It would be very naive to think so.”

Ismail Ferhat is the author of Les foulards de la discorde. Retours sur l’affaire de Creil, 1989, La laïcité, une passion française ? Perspectives croisées and Des discriminations sous-estimées? Les musulmans de France.

Featured Image:Itmostt @Flickr

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