French schools emphasize core republican values as classes resume after teacher’s beheading

·4-min read

French teachers and public officials sought to reinforce the core values of the education system on Monday as twelve million school pupils returning from a two-week holiday entered their classrooms for the first time since the slaying of history teacher Samuel Paty.

The annual two-week holiday in late October and early November is usually a chance for family holidays and an initial break after the first seven weeks of the school year.

This year, the holiday had barely begun when Samuel Paty was beheaded in front of his school in late afternoon on Friday, 16 October, at the hands of a Chechen refugee seeking revenge for the teacher’s use of Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a lesson on freedom of expression.

The killing reopened heated debates on religion, secularism and conditions for the country’s Muslims. It also put security officials on heightened terror alert, which was raised to its highest level after a second deadly Islamist attack at a church in Nice.

Schools around the country observed a minute of silence for Paty at 11am. Prime Minister Jean Castex and Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer observed the minute of silence at the school in Conflans–Sainte-Honorine where Paty taught.

Macron appeals to students on social media

President Emmanuel Macron addressed school pupils on his Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat accounts regarding recent terror attacks and a new confinement to fight the second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic.

“I know the emotion you feel after these terrorist attacks, which included an attack on a teacher in front of a school,” Macron wrote. “We have all been shocked by what happened. Talk about it among yourselves and with your teachers.”

Teachers also read a famous letter by nineteenth-century thinker and politician Jean Jaurès on their role in transmitting values to young people.

“They will be citizens and they must know what a free democracy is, what rights it confirs on them, what duties the sovereignty of the nation imposes on them,” Jaurès’s letter reads.

Teachers stress critical thinking

For many teachers, addressing Paty’s slaying with pupils presented a challenge that spoke to the values of critical thinking and exchange at the heart of their profession.

“It might be difficult, but establishing the conditions for calm debate in class is essential,” Yvan Colas, a classics teacher at a junior high school in the Paris region, told RFI. “We’re back to the roots of our mission: not just teaching a subject, but also a way of being. Not just teaching French, but teaching who we are. “

Facilitating dialogue about a sensitive subject was a matter of being open to what pupils have to say, others remarked.

“We need to know what they’re seeing and hearing in order to listen and work with them to think critically about the world,” said Clément, who, like Paty, teaches history in a Paris-region junior high school.

“That’s the main mission of a teacher: to work with the pupil to build knowledge and values, without taking a position for or against what they have to say,” Clément told RFI.

“There are no stupid questions and no forbidden questions. A question that a pupil doesn’t dare to ask, they’ll go and find an answer elsewhere, and it won’t necessarily be the best answer.”

Confinement rules

Schools also reopened under a tightened health protocol of a new confinement imposed last week with the aim of reeling in the second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic.

The new rules notably had children as young as six wearing mandatory face masks, roughly corresponding to the level in primary schools. The previous limit was 11, corresponding with junior high schools.

Some teachers went on strike due to health rules they said were unable to apply.

“It’s impossible to have physical distancing in classes with 35 to 37 pupils,” Sophie Djigo, who teaches philosophy at a high school in Lille, told newspaper Le Monde. “We are unable to open windows [because of security rules] and we do not have the staff to disinfect tables between each class.”

[interviews by RFI's Laurence Théault]