The Monsieur Paty attack: controversy & French secularism
Jemima Piggott covers the controversial attack of Monsieur Paty and its relevance in France today.
His name is not well known beyond the French borders, but towards the end of the year, Samuel Paty sits at the forefront of all students’ and teachers’ minds.
Before I left for my year abroad, I felt confident in my knowledge of the importance of secularism in France. It has often been a favoured topic of mine to debate in essays and presentations. It wasn’t until my second official week of work as a language assistant in a lycée that I was confronted with the extreme realities of secularism vs. freedom of speech in the classrooms.
Extreme is the only apt description in this instance. Monsieur Paty, a history and geography teacher, was beheaded on his commute from work in October 2020. His killer, an 18-year-old Islamic terrorist, had picked his victim from a viral online campaign against Paty’s conduct in his classroom. It has recently come to light that the original recount of Paty’s lesson conduct was loosely based, and this particular ‘eyewitness’ was not even in school that day, having been suspended for poor attendance. Regardless of the implied extremities of his actions that the initial report showed, which resulted in a spiral of online exposure, it still begs the all-important question: was it all worth a life?
The initial summary of what happened that day in Paty’s lesson is as follows. He was teaching a lesson on free speech and blasphemy, a very popular and important part of the French syllabus. He explained that he was going to show the cartoon images that had sparked the Charlie Hebdo attacks and asked the Muslim students who were likely to find it offensive to leave the classroom. This immediately sparked controversy as a boundary had been breached. In France, the second you step through the school doors, all religious identification is stripped from you. Outside of school, you can wear your hijab, your Star of David, your cross or any other clothing or accessory that pertains to religion, and your friends may very well know that you’re a practising Muslim. However, within school walls, you simply cannot align yourself with any set of religious beliefs. In asking his Muslim students to leave, Paty was effectively forcing them to ‘out’ their religious status in an environment where it is unacceptable to do so.
This was not the sole reason behind the outrage directed towards Paty, however, nor is it the most obvious. Showing images that had previously ignited a terrorist attack was, perhaps, not very tactful. Regardless, it is the reaction to this that caused such an outcry in France. It was in giving a lesson on free speech and its ties to secularism that Paty and his right to freedom of speech were attacked.
It was in giving a lesson on free speech and its ties to secularism that Paty and his right to freedom of speech were attacked.
France places a huge emphasis on keeping controversial and highly charged topics out of the context of the classroom. They brand themselves with the success of laïcité (secularism) yet still preach for the basic human right of free speech. It should be questioned, if the sense of secularism and the taboo it brings with it weren’t so strong, would there be a need to behead a teacher with a cleaver for teaching a topic that quite literally plays into the morals of the attack?
Whilst the UN made statements about how fundamentalism and opposition to the separation of religion and state need to be challenged, and how thoughtful debate, such as the one that Paty had attempted to create in his classroom that day, needs to be encouraged, it all feels very hollow. Two years after his murder, I now witness the strength of secularism and the oppression of simple conversations by the looming fear of overstepping the mark. It goes so much further than the common worries of accidentally saying something offensive when talking about an intricate or polemical social dynamic. Of course, measures have been taken to honour and remember Paty but, beyond the one school I have heard of doing a minute’s silence, it all feels eerily like a half-hearted effort to prove that the debate of secularism versus free speech is being taught.
The school that I work at has timed all modules on religion and secularism to coincide with the anniversary of Monsieur Paty’s death. Students have created posters and information sheets about this debate, and they’re on display just past the reception. But I haven’t heard a single person talk about this. Classes are taken over to the display and they stand in silence and make notes. France wants secularism and free speech, but the problem is no longer what the government wants, it’s that people are too nervous to approach the topic within the school walls, lest the same punishment is fated for them.
Free speech is held up as a fundamental right. In France, this ‘fundamental right’ is not ubiquitous. The government strip away religious and political identification creating an incredibly sensitive grey area of taboo within schools. I’m worried I’ll be told off for the cross tattoo on the inside of my finger, which is nothing in comparison to the girls worried about expulsion for wearing a hijab or even what is referred to as “long, flowy dresses” which align themselves with Muslim ideals of modesty. It is perhaps Muslims that suffer the most at the hands of secularism, with very little taught on their religion within schools, harsher rules on religious identification and a lack of schools devoted to the Islamic faith whilst there are many Catholic and other Christian denomination schools within France.
It is perhaps Muslims that suffer the most at the hands of secularism, with very little taught on their religion within schools, harsher rules on religious identification and a lack of schools devoted to the Islamic faith
Not only does Monsieur Paty’s situation particularly highlight the stigma and taboo surrounding the Islamic population and their understanding of how to portray their religion both within and outside of the classroom, but this terrorist attack has also somehow been more aligned with the extreme side of Islam than with the faults of secularism.
My feeling is that although the French system prides itself on liberté, égalité and fraternité, in all of this commotion with Paty, none of these morals were displayed. Liberté does not, apparently, equate to freedom of speech. Yes, the schools follow the syllabus and teach the children what it is, and yes, all the pros and cons are debated with valid reasoning on both sides, but somehow it still all feels like a front. The emphasis on the effort that goes into teaching children about this just creates an offsetting feeling of ‘freedom of speech and expression’ being antiquated social constructs that are only ever debated in the classroom and essays so that maximum marks can be scored from the introduction of a counterargument.
Secularism holds meaning. Somehow, beyond my comprehension, for many French people this can be directly linked to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and safety. Personally, given the severity of the Paty attack, it summons tension, danger and a cry for blood and should no longer be associated with the utopian ideals of peace that the French government strive for.