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Last month, teacher Samuel Paty was killed after a provocative civics lesson about French laicité. Now, the government is portraying him as a hero, but in classrooms, educators find the discussion is more nuanced – and, for some, more volatile

Kéren Desmery is a history teacher who also studies the effectiveness of France's civics program. In her research, she asked teachers to define laïcité, the French form of official secularism, and got an array of conflicting answers. 'They don’t know what it is, but most of them are sure they do know, and the others are lost. That’s a big problem.'Portraits by Maya Vidon-White/The Globe and Mail

It’s the hardest lesson that teachers in France have ever had to give.

After the murder of their colleague, Samuel Paty, who was beheaded outside his school in the suburbs of Paris last month for showing his class a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed, teachers across the country were given the task by the government of talking to their own students about what happened. In some classrooms, the biggest challenge was explaining why the state considers Mr. Paty a hero.

It’s a conversation that teachers say has put them on the front line of an increasingly heated debate in France and beyond about how far national ideals like freedom of speech and laïcité – France’s maximalist version of secularism – should extend.

Six teachers in different parts of France who spoke to The Globe and Mail said one of the most difficult jobs they had was explaining to their students – especially those who hail from devout Muslim backgrounds – the concept of laïcité. This was the idea Mr. Paty was trying to communicate to his civics class when he showed them a provocative cartoon of a naked Prophet Mohammed that had first been published in satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The killing was the act of an 18-year-old who appears to have radicalized himself online. But it’s also one in a wave of jihadist attacks in France over the past five years that has left at least 247 people dead, including 12 who were killed in a 2015 assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo that was carried out by gunmen seeking revenge for the initial publication of the caricatures.

Pedestrians in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris, pass a poster paying tribute to Mr. Paty.THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images

Casting Mr. Paty’s killing as an attack on French values, French President Emmanuel Macron has launched a campaign aimed at curbing “Islamist separatism,” pushing back against what Mr. Macron says is an effort to create a “counter-society” in France that follows Islamic law. Among other measures announced this month, Mr. Macron’s government has made it illegal for parents to home school their children.

A parallel crackdown on Islamic extremist groups launched after Mr. Paty’s death has reached into schools. On Thursday, three 13- and 14-year-old students were charged with complicity in the murder after allegedly pointing out the teacher to his killer. A fourth student from Mr. Paty’s school was charged with slander for her role in the online campaign against the teacher before his death.

Across the country, French media say the education ministry is dealing with more than 150 reports of “defending terrorism” that stem from comments students made during the in-school discussion of the killing and why the state believes Mr. Paty was right to do what he did.

History teacher Jamel Dean says his students are '50-50' on whether Mr. Paty was a hero.

Jamel Dean, an English teacher who works in another gritty Paris banlieue not far from where Mr. Paty taught, said his own students, many of whom are Muslim, are deeply divided about whether Mr. Paty was a hero. “Honestly, with the kids it’s 50-50. Some of them do feel he was a teacher, and he was doing his job and he was allowed to do it. There are others who say: ‘that’s what provocation will get you. And we’re lionizing a guy who provoked a lot of people.’ ” The Globe is not using Mr. Dean’s full name because he says his remarks could lead to dismissal or affect his ability to find another job.

Mr. Dean, who is Muslim himself, said Mr. Paty’s killer was an “unstable” individual whose actions were not founded in any religion. What was worrisome, he said, was that France’s politicians and media were no longer delivering that message. “People used to immediately say [after a terrorist attack] that there is no link between the general Muslim population and these people. Now, especially after Samuel Paty, there’s been a real step up in pointing to the Muslim community in general. I am worried and frustrated by the reactions I’ve seen.”

Dalila Chalabi, a history teacher who is also Muslim, says she's seen some tense exchanges in the secularism debate.

Some teachers say they are worried about their own safety as emotions rise. “It’s not just because of this incident that we are afraid,” said Dalila Chalabi, a history and geography teacher in the south of France. She said tempers sometimes rose during lessons that dealt with the Holocaust, as well as France’s own colonial history.

Ms. Chalabi, who is also Muslim, said the discussion around the caricatures and laïcité had increased tensions. “When we approach the subjects of caricatures or religion, we actually feel there is something that bothers [Muslim students]. … There is greater religiosity among our students and consequently there is this tension between their religion, their beliefs and the principle of secularism.”

None of the teachers who spoke to The Globe criticized Mr. Paty directly – several emphasized that he was well within his rights, and what is known in France as “pedagogical freedom,” or freedom to teach. But only one said they had shown or would show the same caricature of Mohammed to their class.

Many in France understand laïcité to mean freedom of religion, the right of everyone to practise their own faith, so long as it is kept away from the affairs of the state. For others, it means freedom from religion – the complete absence of religious symbols, such as the Muslim hijab in public spaces, and the ability to say, or draw, whatever you want about those that others consider holy.

Some teachers say the problems stem from the civics class that Mr. Paty was teaching, which is supposed to inculcate students with French values, and the greyness surrounding the definition of laïcité.

Kéren Desmery, an academic who studies the effectiveness of the civics program, said that for her research she asked 50 teachers for their definitions of laïcité – and got eight different answers. “They don’t know what it is, but most of them are sure they do know, and the others are lost. That’s a big problem,” she said.

Nov. 2 was a day of memory for Mr. Paty at schools across France. At Honore d'Estienne d'Orves High School in Carquefou, activities included a minute of silence for students and teachers, and an exercise discussing the social factors surrounding his death.SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP via Getty Images

Another difficulty teachers have faced before and since the killing is having to explain to their students – many of whom live in poor and sometimes violent neighbourhoods that feel like a different planet from France’s glittering city centres – why such emphasis is on official secularism. The students can see for themselves that less effort is made to uphold some of the country’s other principles, such as the equality promised in France’s state motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

“It’s hard for teachers to defend their nation’s ideals when there’s a difference between the students’ experiences and the mottoes of the nation,” said Gabriel Lattanzio, who teaches English at a secondary school in another of the banlieues of Paris.

Mr. Lattanzio said he sees rising “almost banal” violence in his school that is motivated by poverty, rather than religion. “When we’re discussing equality and brotherhood, you can tell they don’t believe it. They can see that inequality is rising.”

Gabriel Lattanzio, who teaches English, says social inequities make lessons about French ideals harder to teach.

Teachers say that disparity, and the sense of injustice that rises from it, is pushing more and more of their students to embrace religion as a core part of their identity. The real problems, the teachers say, are the lack of jobs and opportunities in the areas where the students live.

“All of society’s issues land in school. And we are not as teachers able to solve all of society’s problems,” said Christine Guimonnet, secretary-general of the national association of history and geography teachers.

“We’ll act as well as possible, but we cannot solve families’ poverty and joblessness.”

Christine Guimonnet and Clément Stut teach in Pontoise and Bordeaux, respectively.

Mr. Macron’s government, however, has lashed out at international media coverage that has pointed to the economic issues, and France’s struggle to integrate its estimated six million Muslims, playing a motivating role in the string of terrorist attacks targeting the country. (Because census-takers are barred from asking about religion, there is no official statistic regarding the number of Muslims living in the country.)

Some teachers share that perspective. Clément Stut, who teaches at a Catholic school in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, blamed the growing gap between Muslim youths and mainstream French society on religious parents who delivered a different message at home than the students were receiving in school. Laïcité was a time-honoured concept in France, he said, one that had been enshrined in law since 1905, shortly after the French Republic severed relations with the Vatican.


Mr. Stut said he had shown caricatures of the Prophet to his class every year since the 2015 attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. “I show my students the caricatures, not all of them, and not only the Prophet. I also show caricatures of the Pope, Jesus, God, the politicians,” he said. “If we start to censor ourselves, we will lose.”

Mr. Lattanzio said he was worried that the two sides – those who favoured unrestricted laïcité, and those who wanted to see more religion in their lives – were hardening their positions.

“You either defend the cartoons as some sort of heroic act, or you’re a terrorist. This is what the Islamists want. It’s perfect for them. The conversation is getting simpler and simpler, and this is a bad, bad thing.”