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Teachers face difficult test in wake of Charlie Hebdo tragedy

© Pascal Pochard-Casabianca, AFP | French high school students display their support for Charlie Hebdo, January 2015

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2015-01-13

In the wake of last week’s bloody terrorist attacks in Paris, French educators are being urged to improve the teaching of values such as tolerance and free speech in schools. But teachers say the job is easier said than done.

In his 25 years as a PE teacher at a vocational high school, Franck Boucheré had never known a situation like it.

The day after two gunmen killed 12 people at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in eastern Paris, and set off a chain of events that would claim eight other lives, including their own, French teachers were encouraged to talk about the terrorist act with students and discuss holding a minute of silence for the victims.

In a letter addressed to schools across France, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem invited teachers to “respond to the needs and requests shared [by students]”, reminding them that their classes were places where “freedom of thought and speech… understanding of others and reciprocal tolerance“ must be taught.

Boucheré said he and his fellow teachers in the Paris suburb of Puteaux responded as best they could, not always sure of what they were doing. A Spanish language teacher asked her students to make drawings – cartoonists behind a handful of drawings depicting the Prophet Mohammed were the original target of the bloody attacks – and then to comment on each other’s sketches. A science teacher photocopied the front page of several editions of Charlie Hebdo and asked students to discuss the images that cost the artists their lives.

Teachers in other schools also struggled with the unprecedented task. Claire*, who teaches French literature in Paris, said the subject of tolerance was a common one in previous lesson plans, but she was suddenly lost for words. “The attacks affected me as an individual and as a citizen, I had no idea what to say to my students,” she told FRANCE 24 by telephone on Monday. “So I decided to read the minister’s letter out loud to the students. We took it from there”.

Boucheré said once students were prompted, a torrent of words and emotions poured out. In a reflection of the massive unity rallies that took place across the country, an overwhelming majority of pupils slammed the two brothers and their accomplice in the violence.

“About 90 percent [of students] quickly shared the opinion that the attackers were terrorists, and they were anything but real Muslims,” the gym teacher said. But not all the students condemned the gunmen unreservedly, with some saying the slain cartoonists deserved their share of the blame.

Tomas*, an English teacher at a middle school in another Paris suburb said a good number of students, mostly of Muslim background, were ambivalent. “There was a lot of ‘Yes, but’: You should not kill, but Charlie Hebdo should not have published those cartoons.”

Minute of silence

As teachers waded into sensitive debates, exploring the limits of religious freedom and free speech with students, they were also faced with disagreements over another matter.

While most schools across France joined lawmakers, law enforcement personnel, journalists, and even private companies, in observing a minute of silence at noon on Thursday, it was not mandatory. Local school officials were left to decide if they would take part, and not all did.

The English teacher Tomas was warned by superiors not to observe the minute of silence to help “avoid any confrontations”. “The decision completely shocked me,” he told FRANCE 24.  “While the rest of France is in mourning, in our school it was as if nothing had happened”.

Boucheré, the gym teacher in Puteaux, was off campus with a group of students at the same time. When he announced the group would observe the minute of silence for Charlie Hebdo victims, one student said he did not see why everyone was making such a fuss. “No one will observe a minute of silence when I die, why should I?”

However, on his return to the school, Boucheré learned that an entire class had refused to take part in the minute of silence, much to the dismay of their teacher. “It was a class of about 20 kids, all boys, who had decided they would not participate and did not want to give a clear reason for it,” he lamented.

Stéphanie*, an art teacher in a vocational high school in the Paris suburb of Bobigny, was stunned when a couple of students grunted “Allahu Akbar” during their school’s minute of silence. The same words, “God is great” in Arabic, were shouted by the gunmen as they slaughtered cartoonists and police at the offices of Charlie Hebdo the day before. The students' outburst was loud enough for others to hear, but not loud enough for dismayed teachers to identify the culprits.

Unruly age

Stéphanie played down the incident: “It’s meant to provoke us teachers. As soon as they figure out something we don’t want to hear, they are going to say it.”

Boucheré also wondered how much of the students' dissent was the result of personal, heart-felt convictions, and how much was the desire to provoke. He said that the student who objected to observing the minute of silence in his presence was not Muslim.

“I think his reaction is more a product of his age, to impress his fellow students. I don’t think he is repeating what he hears at home,” he said.

Tomas said it was important to distinguish between a childish desire to provoke and cases that reveal profound and dangerous convictions. “Very few kids do not agree about the principle of free speech. I had an 11-year-old kid tell the entire class that the prophet is above any laws, but he really is the exception,” the English teacher said.

When asked if the dramatic events that unfolded in the French capital last week would change the way they interact with students, the teachers unanimously said it would not.

“No, it’s not going to change what we do at school, in fact it is a good reason to keep doing what we do daily, which is talk about racism, talk about incivility,” Boucheré said. “But what is also clear is that there is so much work to do.”

*Names have been changed at the request of those interviewed for this article.

Date created : 2015-01-12


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