PARIS — In the country of the Enlightenment, shadows hang over French schools.
Those shadows darkened after an attacker beheaded Samuel Paty, a history teacher who had shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on freedom of speech.
At a memorial service for Paty at the Sorbonne on Wednesday, President Emmanuel Macron declared: “We will continue this fight for liberty 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 the French 18th century intellectuals at the heart of the Enlightenment. But the president’s call on teachers to play an even greater role in the fight for their values is asking a lot of people who feel let down by the French state and angry at his government.
Teachers speak of being left largely on their own to handle complex problems such as how to defend secularism in the face of radical Islamism while facing violence and verbal attacks.
French teachers also say that violence against them has not been taken seriously enough, their pay is among the lowest for their profession in Europe, working conditions are poor, young teachers are thrown into rough neighborhoods with little preparation and the workload is overwhelming.
Although many of these problems pre-date Macron, teachers accuse his government of failing to tackle them or making them worse. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer’s department is particularly unpopular.
“According to major surveys I have done, teachers do not feel protected by the institution and think that the day they have difficulties, they will be let go,” said Laurent Frajerman, a historian specializing in teachers’ political engagement.
Teachers blame Macron and Blanquer for worsening working conditions, thousands of job cuts and a dysfunctional educational bureaucracy.
Yet now Macron is asking teachers to redouble their efforts to meet the longstanding challenge of defending and promoting the French concept of secularism while not stigmatizing or marginalizing people of faith.
Teachers as torchbearers
Secularism, or laïcité in French, is central to the country’s self-image, with many believing 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 supposed to translate into equal treatment of all citizens, along with values of tolerance and freedom of expression (with limits related to Holocaust denial, defamation and hate speech). And teachers in public schools are regarded as torchbearers who instil 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 dealt with properly, according to a school inspector with experience of more than 35 schools.
In recent years, he said, he has seen teachers having to deal with Muslim pupils hiding their eyes from depictions of pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, verbal attacks on science teachers accused of speaking against God’s truths and threats to have teachers “denounced” to a local imam.
“If people kill their teacher, it’s also because we let this kind of bullshit take hold,” 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 to handle these situations.
Paty, the teacher killed last week, showed those cartoons in a civics class in Conflans-Saint-Honorine, northwest of Paris. He reportedly warned children who could be offended by the images to look away.
But some parents complained about the lesson to the school’s leadership. Online criticism of the teacher brought him to the attention of the attacker, who had no previous connection to the school.
In a different suburban high school, pupils threatened to bring Kalashnikov rifles into class after a teacher showed such cartoons, according to another teacher.
“Within two weeks the teacher was transferred, the [schools’] General Inspectorate came and students were interrogated by the police, because the headmaster reacted quickly,” the teacher said. “At the time, we thought this was disproportionate, because we’re used to extreme reactions from our students.”
Yet teachers — just like wider French society and other Western countries — are divided over how and even whether liberal values such as freedom of expression can be reconciled with radical interpretations of Islam, such as those that would condone violence for depictions of Muhammad.
The school inspector said he considered Islam and every other religion to be incompatible with his vision of secularism in schools.
But an English teacher working in the Paris suburbs said teachers should be sensitive to the offense caused by cartoons of Muhammad.
“Caricatures divide, they hurt,” she said, arguing Muslims in France feel stigmatized and not supported by their government.
“Fighting terrorism starts by giving a place to children of immigrant background, recreating a relationship of trust,” she added.
In conversations with POLITICO, teachers also stressed that the roots of divisions over religious identity and freedom of speech are complex, including politics, overseas conflicts, racism and social marginalization — issues that they can’t affect.
One teacher noted that Paty’s killer made a domestic political connection to his crime.
“Paty wasn’t only killed for showing caricatures. The terrorist also said he was Macron’s dog,” said the teacher.
Macron gave a speech three weeks ago setting out a range of measures to tackle radical Islamism. Although the speech was praised by some commentators as a balanced approach to the issue, it was portrayed by others as stigmatizing Muslims.
Low pay, high stress
Dealing with such complex and dangerous issues is only part of the challenge of being a teacher in France.
Teachers in France are often caricatured as lazy and frequently on strike. But OECD and European Commission surveys show they are among the lowest-paid teachers in Europe. Their hourly wage is lower than in Poland.
“For many years now, one survey after another has shown that French teachers are dissatisfied with their working conditions,” said Géraldine Farge, a sociologist who studies the education sector.
Violence in schools — a problem that goes far beyond disputes over Islam and secularism — is also a major concern.
“In a forthcoming article on primary school teachers, a representative sample was asked whether they had been verbally or physically assaulted by a pupil or parent — 32 percent replied that they had, which is quite high,” said Farge.
In the same school where pupils threatened to bring in Kalashnikovs, a student who stabbed another was able to return to class two years later, before a staff member noticed him, according to the teacher familiar with that school.
“There’s such a high turnover in these schools that no one has any memory of what’s going on,” the teacher said.
In France, teachers’ job location is determined by a points system based mostly on experience. That means young teachers often spend their first five to 10 years in very difficult areas before they have enough points to leave.
Teachers complain of tough working conditions, stress and an overload of bureaucratic tasks from the Education Ministry.
A teacher in Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s poorest region, reported repeated absences of colleagues and schools where asbestos fell from the ceiling during class. Staff often have to deal with children who are victims of physical or sexual abuse, the teacher said.
Last year, the suicide of Christine Renon, a school director in Seine-Saint-Denis, highlighted the burden placed on teachers. Renon left a letter where she complained of exhausting fatigue, the accumulation of administrative tasks, and loneliness in the face of difficult relations with students’ parents.
Even in quieter places such as Poitiers, a provincial town in the west of France, teachers are not immune to a feeling of malaise.
“Some colleagues are cracking up because of an ever-increasing workload,” a teacher there said. “Wellbeing at work is not a priority. I’ve been doing this job for 30 years, I’ve never seen a single occupational doctor.”
In 2019, teachers launched the Red Pens movement, a riff on the Yellow Jackets anti-government protests, on Facebook to demand respect and better wages. In 2018, some used social media to denounce a lack of support from their hierarchy over school violence, using the ironic hashtag #pasdevague (“don’t make waves”).
Faced with renewed complaints about the French state’s treatment of teachers in the aftermath of Paty’s killing, Education Minister Blanquer vowed 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 round table on education would lead to “financial recognition, cooperation, i.e. teamwork, modernisation and protection.”
But experts doubt whether Blanquer is capable of gaining teachers’ confidence for a renewed effort to instil the values of the Enlightenment.
“He is a very unpopular minister, who wasn’t replaced [in a reshuffle] when everyone expected it. It was a slap in the face because he is someone who has been massively rejected. Macron is now paying for his choice: He doesn’t have someone who can open a dialogue,” said historian Frajerman.