'Teaching kills!?' Credit: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

January 19, 2021   6 mins

Imagine being a teacher in France. You come out in a cold sweat at the prospect of telling your class about Voltaire, Rousseau or Diderot. You’re terrified one of their parents will post your details on an extremist forum. You leave your workplace after dark wondering if someone’s waiting to attack you. Shocking as it may seem to British ears, this is the reality for secondary school History teachers across the Republic.

There always was an element of amicable combat in French education, of course; it encourages intense engagement. Teachers have been considered and trained as the foot soldiers of the Republic since the 1880s. With the birth of the Third Republic, education was wrested from the hands of the Catholic Church and made free, mandatory and secular. During their training years, teachers were nicknamed the “Black Hussars”, since they wore a black uniform and looked decidedly serious.

Their task was to spread rational thinking, esprit critique, the values of the Enlightenment — and to root out religious intolerance and superstition from their classes. In every village, across France, they gained status, offering a counter-power to the local priest. Their aim was clear: to emancipate young minds that had been too long controlled by the Church. It wasn’t easy.

Today, still, teachers are seen as playing a crucial role in French society by educating future citizens, by teaching them to reason and think critically. Many French teachers consider their work a public duty, which they carry out with determination, conviction and sometimes a heightened sense of sacrifice. Samuel Paty was among them, before he was brutally murdered by an 18-year-old Chechen Islamist on 16 October.

His assassination has revealed the many failures of an institution and its people, but it has also prompted a new determination to tackle the roots of religious separatism — which has been gaining influence in France since the 1980s. A recent poll conducted by the IFOP institute for the Jean Jaurès Foundation, on the sixth anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, shows that “religion has seeped through State Education in a way that is now affecting teachers’ work and lives.” Teachers and their managers tend not to confront it with the resolve and courage of their predecessors. This is indeed one of the most shocking findings of this poll: for fear of ruffling too many feathers, scared for their personal safety, many teachers in France resort to self-censorship.

Fatiha Agag-Boudjahlat, who teaches History and Geography in Toulouse, is an anomaly: an educator willing to publicly declare her political opinions. In her essay “Le Grand Détournement”, which gained her the Laïcité Award in 2019, she argued that a semantic aberration was slowly undermining French democracy. Little by little, she wrote, concepts and words have been turned upside down, or “deviated” from their meaning, by relativists of all hues: tolerance is being used to justify intolerance, antiracism to validate essentialism, and feminism to claim, for instance, that religious garments are a new form of freedom for women.

Agag-Boudjahlat has suffered for her outspokenness. Last week, she was granted protection from the Education Ministry, after receiving aggressive criticism for a Facebook post. In it, she rejoiced that the overwhelming majority of her pupils had embraced a homage to Samuel Paty that her school, like almost every other in France, had organised for 2 November. The nation was still reeling from the History teacher’s decapitation a fortnight earlier, and only a handful of pupils, Fatiha said in her post, had not wanted to take part. Born abroad, they and their parents had not yet assimilated the values of the Republic, but she hoped they soon would. Her message was positive, clear and moderate.

And yet, two teachers’ unions associated with VISA, a violent “antifa” organisation, produced a flyer calling for her to be sanctioned; worse, they labelled Agag-Boudjahlat a racist and far-Right sympathiser. Such libellous behaviour is now a common ploy used by the far-Left in France to intimidate and silence universalist and secular voices such as hers.

“I am the child of poor Algerian immigrants,” Fatiha told me:

“My seven brothers and I have done very well thanks to France. What is beautiful in France is the political concept of a Nation. And what Islamists and their fellow travellers can’t stand is the success story of people like us. School in France is a place of greater safety, a haven from dogma where you are given the tools to question the world and think for yourself.”

She senses “the condescendence of the far-Left activists, often of privileged background, who would like her, and children of immigrants like her, to always feel victimised, full of resentment towards France”. This in turn plays into the hands of Islamists “who hate the emancipation French education gives its children.”

When she speaks, Fatiha reminds me of the quiet passion and forceful clarity of my History teachers when I was at school in 1980s Paris. The strength of her argument lies in its intelligibility: she does not use the deceitful jargon of ideologues. Everybody from the age of 7 could understand her when she talks of what makes a nation, and how individuals of different origins can embrace a common destiny and common values.

And yet France has changed a great deal since Fatiha and I were at school. The edifying new reality is this: 49% of teachers (and 62% of teachers under the age of 30) censor themselves, in order to avoid tension in their class. This is 13% more than in 2018. A majority of teachers, 59% of them, say they have witnessed aggressive behaviour either in their classroom or at their current school due to religious separatism.

The animosity takes many forms. It crops up during lessons on secularism or gender equality; during cultural school trips, when pupils refuse to enter a place of worship that is different from their own; at the canteen, where they refuse to eat what’s on offer or simply refuse to eat at the same table as other pupils of a different religion. Agag-Boudjahlat is angry at fundamentalist parents who provide complacent medical certificates stating that their daughters are “allergic to chlorine” simply because they don’t want them appearing in swimming suits. “We must save those girls. Knowing how to swim can be life-saving!” she says.

The poll shows that such occurrences have increased by 10-15%, compared to 2018. “Certain topics and classes sometimes clash with the absolutist prism of Religion on subjects such as body representation, Darwinism, democracy, values of the Republic,” comments Iannis Roder, director of the Education Observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, and himself a secondary school History teacher. Today, many pupils and their parents don’t just question the moral and intellectual authority of teachers — which can be healthy; they simply refuse authority in the same way they refuse to accept facts.

So teachers find themselves having to negotiateand dither in passing on knowledge. The weekly magazine Marianne reported last week the experience of two History teachers who did not want to be named. One is 34 and has been a teacher for seven years in the Seine-Saint-Denis département, north of Paris. She confided of “fear, or rather unease is a daily feeling.” “Caution” is what defines everything she does or says, especially when she knows she will have to talk about current affairs. “We are constantly walking on eggshells. We also have to anticipate the pupils’ reaction and that of their even more hardliner parents.”

Another History teacher, aged 41, told the magazine:

“my pupils are little informed, their arguments are usually weak, but their virulence is constant. Recently, we were talking about the Armenian genocide. Two pupils of Turkish origin asked me to withdraw what I had said and to apologise. They had the support of most of the class, and said I offended their culture. I simply stated that I was talking about a historical fact, nothing more.”

If many French teachers are afraid to teach today, it is because they feel unsupported by their managers. The chain of command has too often been replaced by a chain of renunciation. Those teachers who still see themselves as foot soldiers of the Republic are left to defend themselves, becoming easy prey to fundamentalist parents and social networks’ relativist culture. After Samuel Paty’s class on Freedom of Speech, a pupil who wasn’t there spread lies, her Salafist parents organised a hate campaign on social networks, a radicalised imam got involved, and ten days later an islamist from Normandy travelled to his school outside Paris with a set of knives.

And yet, many History teachers like Agag-Boudjahlat soldier on. “One of the things I try and teach my pupils,” she says, “is that there are facts and that there are opinions. Of those, there are many different acceptable and respectable opinions. I tell them that nobody is defined by their opinions alone, that an opinion is not an identity, and even more importantly that opinions can evolve.”

Despite the culture of fear, malaise and self-censorship, its most extreme realisation — the traumatic assassination of Samuel Paty — has encouraged some teachers to report parents and pupils who are undermining their work, or threatening them. Cases of religious radicalisation are increasingly being flagged up to the authorities. The fight is going to be long and difficult though; Agag-Boudjahlat worries that too many of her colleagues are either indifferent, ignorant or even complacent. Foot soldiers they are not. It is now for the Republique and its citizens to support and protect teachers who simply wish to do their jobs — to teach facts, and allow a range of opinion. In other words, to be true to Voltaire’s teachings of tolerance.

Agnes Poirier is a French journalist, writer and broadcaster.