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Attacks on secularism: French teachers, the last black hussars of the republic

13 March 2023 Investigations   23572  

Rejection of secularism, denial of science and conspiracy… Teachers in the national education system find themselves confronted with a challenge not only to the republican model, but also to the Enlightenment, against a backdrop of a general decline in the level of students. Understaffed, teachers do not feel supported by their superiors, who seem to be out of touch with reality.

By Cédric Gouverneur

The Simone Weil vocational school is a small public establishment in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris, in the heart of the capital. On Friday 16 September, during a school trip, a teacher noticed that one of the students in her class was wearing a veil. This is forbidden by the 2004 law on wearing religious symbols at school and, by extension, during school outings. The teacher therefore asked the student to uncover herself. She refused to comply and phoned her family, who demanded to speak to the teacher. Her brother threatens the teacher to “beat her up”: “You’ll see what happens to you, I’m coming”. The teacher immediately alerted the police, who arrested the overexcited brother a few minutes later, while he was on his way… Referred to the public prosecutor’s office and then placed under judicial supervision, the 22-year-old man will be tried for “insulting a person in charge of a public service mission” and “threats”. His sister is banned from the school and will be subject to disciplinary proceedings.

A few days later, we are outside the school. The teaching staff refused to “talk to the media”. “Why make a big deal out of it” is the only answer. Pupils smoking on the pavement agree to comment to the journalist on the “veil thing”. According to them, the girl involved “was not veiled last year”. A pupil defended her: “It’s unfair that she should be punished. It’s her brother who messed up, not her. She did nothing, she just put on her veil, it’s nothing”. “Moreover, it wasn’t even in class, just on the way to a school outing,” added one student. Another inadvertently mentions the teacher’s name. A “pawn”, who was listening to the conversation from the door of the school, reprimanded her in a panic: “Don’t give out this information!”

A law on the veil that is not well known to high school students. A student, recently veiled, who violates this law but is defended by her friends. A teacher threatened. Her name kept secret for fear of reprisals. But “why make a big deal of it?” This situation corroborates the testimony of the anonymous teacher collected by Carine Azzopardi in the book “Ces petits renoncements qui tuent” (see interview page 48).

 “I want to die a martyr”

The first dispute concerning the wearing of the veil in schools took place in Creil (Oise) in 1989. And already the left was divided on this issue. Twenty years later, a report by the High Council on Integration (HCI) denounced a “ghetto effect” in certain schools, with “worrying academic and societal consequences”. This 2010 report was already concerned about the difficulties of teaching religious facts, the Shoah or the Middle East, noting the questioning of evolutionism in favour of a “divine or creationist action, imposed by the pupil without argument”. The incident at the Simone Weil high school would have remained confidential had it not been for a police leak to the Actu17 website. But how many facts, more or less serious, pass under the media radar?

Lionel, a French teacher in a high school in Toulon, tells us that at the beginning of the school year, a colleague asked her students “what they wanted to do in life”: “One of them answered ‘I want to die a martyr’. She reported the matter to the headmaster, who passed the information on to the police. But what happens next? What’s going to happen? We’re going to think twice before giving this kid an EMC (moral and civic education) lesson. There’s no way we’re going to show him cartoons and risk him coming out with a knife. So we censor ourselves”.

In December 2020, two months after the beheading of Samuel Paty by a jihadist, the Education Observatory of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès drew up an overview of the attitudes of the teaching profession to religious demands: almost half (49%) of teachers admitted having already censored themselves to avoid incidents. The majority (80%) said they had observed, at least once, a challenge to teaching in the name of religion. 21% said they had refused to reach out to someone in the name of their religious beliefs. 19% expressed disapproval of commemorations of Islamist attacks – from refusing to join in to justifying the violence. The organisation of the tribute to Samuel Paty, on 2 November 2020, provoked criticism from the teaching world: “Bringing together hundreds of teenagers for a minute’s silence is complicated”, says the headmistress of a Breton high school. I prefer small groups of twenty students, with discussion before and after the moment of silence. In his high school in Toulon, Lionel remembers, “all the kids were gathered in the courtyard with orders to keep quiet for one minute. They were afraid of being punished, so they didn’t flinch. But did they really understand? So that day, I chose to give a lesson to my class on secularism, and it went very well!

Two recent notes from the State services (27 August and 16 September) now point to an Islamist offensive aimed at pupils on social networks: on Twitter and Tik Tok, videos encourage Muslim women to circumvent the law by veiling themselves without appearing to do so, for example by putting a headband in their hair and a hood, or by wearing an “abaya”, a religious garment from the Persian Gulf that can be passed off as a dress. This happened in October in a school in Montauban.

Let’s remember that in the majority of cases, Muslim students accept the 2004 law: “Two of my students are veiled outside the school,” says Lionel. They take off their veil before entering the school and put it back on when they leave, no problem. It should also be remembered that breaches of the law do not only concern Muslims: “I have had to call to order high school girls who ostensibly wore Christian crosses on their necklaces”, a headmistress in Brittany confided to us.

The insoluble recruitment equation

Although they are a minority, the virulence of these abuses is no less worrying, and they do not only concern the PEZs (priority education zones) in large cities: “During the ‘secularism day at the school of the Republic’ (9 December 2021), I was treated to a ‘ISIS, that’s cool’, by a pupil”, recounts Bruno, a French teacher in a rural vocational high school in the Rennes Academy. “Another said that he thought there was a ‘war against Muslims’”. Bruno also noticed the questioning of the evolution of species: “Some pupils say to me, ‘we, sir, are not descended from the monkey’, or ‘the dinosaurs did not exist‘”. Does Bruno make any reports? “No, that’s bringing out the heavy artillery. You’d have to do it all the time. These statements are provocative, they are still kids, I am the alpha male of the class, and in the end they know very well that I am there to help them: most of them owe me at the end of the year.” A member of the CGT, Bruno said he was “shocked to see LFI and the CGT demonstrating against Islamophobia with the Muslim Brotherhood”. For this reason, he “does not vote for LFI”. Even if he “doesn’t forget that some people use secularism to hit only Muslims, especially here in Brittany, where the public school is in direct competition with private Catholic education”. What can be done to fight against such behaviour? “In the vocational high school, our programmes are modelled on the general high school. It’s inappropriate: I’ve got kids who border on illiteracy, and I’m supposed to teach them ‘From the Fifth Republic to the European Union, the affirmation of democracy’! Our curricula are written by academics who are totally out of touch. At the same time, we are asked to inflate the marks, in order to achieve a good success rate and to ensure that the lycée is well marked. Bruno also points to what he calls the “Absurdistan” of national education jargon: “The buzzword is ‘benevolence’. We also have ‘resilience’, ‘synergies’… A vocabulary derived from management, far from the republican tradition of the school. Today’s educationalists are cut off from reality”. This is illustrated by “the famous 74-page Covid protocol, drawn up at the start of the 2020 school year”, recalls Julien, another secondary school teacher in Brittany, in a state of shock. “It was crazy! This desire to parameterise everything, down to the smallest detail, without controlling anything in the end. The national education system is very hierarchical, whereas society demands more cooperative approaches.”

The solution would be to increase the number of teachers: “We need more teachers, that’s obvious,” says Lionel in Toulon. When you have thirty kids in a heterogeneous class, with kids who are there to make a mess, students who need an AESH (accompanying person for disabled students), it becomes unmanageable… Smaller numbers would allow the class to progress,” before “going to demonstrate” during the day of mobilisation of teachers in September for salaries and pensions. 3,700 teaching posts have not been filled in the 2022 competitive examination… Bruno is perplexed by the contractual teachers, recruited in a hurry this summer and trained in a hurry: “They won’t last long. No one wants to do this job anymore. Depression is a very common illness among us.” “Many colleagues regret having chosen to become teachers,” concludes Julien.