France: Wind of Anger in Education

Image credit: Thomas Bresson / Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, October 16, just as teachers and students were returning home for a two-week vacation, Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher from the Paris region, was beheaded as he left his school by a Muslim fundamentalist. His crime? Having illustrated a course on freedom of expression with the cartoons of the Prophet of Islam, published by the satirical newspaper Charlie-Hebdo. The editorial staff of this newspaper was attacked in a massacre 5 years ago by barbarians of the same species and for the same reasons.

Political exploitation of a despicable murder

The French political class responded with a wave of hatred against Muslims in general and not only jihadists. The Minister of the Interior thus denounced the existence of halal shelves (halal meat is prepared in the manner prescribed by Islamic law) in supermarkets, insinuating that large distribution groups seeking to make money had favored the “Islamist separation” of Muslims from the rest of the population. Certainly they want to make money, but why not attack the pizza shelves as Italian “separatism” while we’re at it? Part of this attack was directed against union and leftist activists accused of indulging fanatics, with methods reminiscent of those of a certain U.S. senator from Wisconsin in the 1950s.

In these circumstances, the national tribute planned to occur in all schools on Monday, November 2 did not really provide a balm to the wound in the hearts of all teachers. They wanted to pay homage to their colleague who had died, above all, due to not having been properly protected by his administration. His assassination had been preceded by two weeks of smear campaigns and calls for murder on social networks with little support from the higher ups. But many were wary of the political use that would be made of the official tribute.

Covid-19 makes a mess

The Covid-19 pandemic came like a bowling ball knocking over all the pins. Since the start of the school year in early September, very little has been done to prevent the circulation of the virus in schools. There has been no additional hiring of teachers, or nurses, or supervisors (in France these supervisors are teams of 5 to 20 young adults, often university students who supervise high school and middle school students when they are not in class, contact the parents of absent students, etc.) or janitorial staff, who are exhausted by the increase in their workload. There has also been no opening of additional premises. A reinforced sanitary protocol had been ready since July in case of a worsening of the epidemic, with a plan to keep half of the students at home, either every other day or every other week. But Minister Blanquer refused to apply it.

Even before the return from the autumn vacation, teachers began to see each other in videoconferences to discuss their fears about COVID-19, write petitions to their bosses, and demand protective measures. Using the pretext of the terrorist risk, but probably in reality for fear of this anger, the minister then decided… to cancel the tribute to Samuel Paty! It was indeed planned that the teachers, who had not been able to meet together since his assassination, would arrive at their schools at 8 am, while the students would come at 10 am. These two hours were to allow the organization of the tribute. Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer was scared that the discussions would focus on the inadequacy of sanitary measures and trigger a wave of strike action. Not only did his maneuver not dissuade a fraction of the teachers from going on strike, but it made visible to hundreds of thousands of others the contempt in which the minister holds them. This tribute, which was vital to restore the honor and dignity of the teachers, was crossed out by Blanquer with the stroke of a pen on Friday, October 30 at 5:00 p.m. In addition, the teachers learned about it through the media – like all the other decisions of this minister, which even managed to upset the school principals. For all the colleagues who think – rightly or wrongly – that they could very well have been Samuel Paty, it felt like a signal that they could die on the job without their minister’s attention.

When we mobilize, we get respect

Also, although most of the unions did not organize much, a wave of strikes, based on the French law of the “right of withdrawal” (allowing workers to stay away from the job when they deem the conditions unsafe), and union assemblies swept through part of the country’s schools during the week of Monday, November 2 to Friday, November 6. Unsurprisingly, it was most massive in the Paris region. But in many cities, large and small, in the rest of the country, at least one school was affected by the movement. On Monday, November 2, the teachers in many places forced the tribute to Samuel Paty take place according to their plan. Starting the following day, the lack of implementation of the health protocol was the focus of all anger, and the demand to operate in half groups as was planned from July rose to be most important. Students in some high schools began to block the doors of their schools to demand the same thing, as well as to demand that schools hire more staff. And finally, it was in the name of their health that the police bludgeoned and gassed them.

As early as Thursday, November 5, when the unions had just announced a plan for a national strike day on Tuesday, November 10, Blanquer announced in the media that half-groups would now be allowed, but only in high schools. At the same time, Blanquer ordered the administration to accept only the minimum possible number of these half-groups, out of sight of the cameras. His main focus is not to avoid contamination, but to avoid parents staying home from work to care for students who are distance learning from home. In addition, he is trying to force teachers to spend a shift behind their computers in the evening to take care of the students who are staying home to do distance learning. Still, the government was forced to take a step back, and it is the mobilization that has imposed this.