Since that fateful morning of Jan. 7, 2015, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it sometimes feels as if we French are living our lives between terrorist assaults, each as vile as the previous, but each more poignant in its viciousness and symbolism. When we think that it cannot get any worse, a new attack proves us wrong.
In the past five years, Islamists in France have targeted and murdered journalists, cartoonists, police officers, soldiers, Jews, young people at a concert, soccer fans, families at a Bastille Day fireworks show, an 86-year-old priest celebrating mass in his little Normandy church, tourists at a Christmas market — the list goes on.
On Oct. 16, a history teacher was beheaded while walking home from his school in the quiet town of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, about 35km north of Paris.
The speed with which we learned the facts sharpened the blow, deepened our emotions and focused our minds: The teacher, Samuel Paty, was murdered by an 18-year-old refugee of Chechen origin for having shown satirical cartoons, some of them caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, during a history lesson about the freedoms of speech and conscience.
We tried to process the facts that we were given. We had to read and hear the words several times; they just did not add up.
A history teacher had just been beheaded in France for teaching his pupils tolerance and the use of a critical mind?
Worse was to come: His murder was the result of a campaign of hatred and misinformation led by a few bigoted parents and relayed on social media by a well-known imam.
Children could see the shock on adults’ faces, they could feel their seething anger.
They asked what had happened, but how can we tell them? We gritted our teeth, swallowed hard and gave them the news. The country went to bed thinking about its history and its teachers.
There are very few countries where the figure of the history teacher is more symbolic and powerful than in France. Since the Third Republic in the early 1880s took education from the hands of the church, and made it free, mandatory and secular, its peaceful infantry of teachers has been the nation’s bedrock.
Their task was clear: to spread the values of the enlightenment to the remotest parts of France — in other words, to open young minds to the world around them in all its complexity.
Young, devoted teachers were thus trained by the state not only to educate children, but to root out superstition from the classroom. State schools became the places where French entered as infants and left as citizens.
The church was still free to teach children in its schools, but those were closely monitored by the state and had to scrupulously follow the national curriculum.
These first generations of teachers were nicknamed the “black hussars of the republic” because they wore a black uniform during their training years and looked decidedly solemn.
They had to. Everywhere they were posted, the teachers had to gain ground opposite the local priest who continued to exert a powerful influence.
Wholly dedicated to their civilizing mission, those “black hussars” and their heirs, such as Samuel Paty, succeeded in emancipating minds. They did it with a heightened sense of duty and sacrifice.
Thanks to them, religion was eventually relegated to the spiritual realm. They had successfully destroyed the church’s aspirations to weigh in on France’s political life and choices.
Like many of my compatriots, I have in the past two weeks been thinking about what I owe my teachers, and my history teachers in particular. I looked back with tenderness at their many quirks.
One was always dressed in red or green, from head to toe. We thought that he was either a communist or an environmental advocate, only that he could not quite make up his mind.
There was another, Pierre de Panafieu. I was 13 and, just as for Paty’s pupils, this was the year I learned about Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and the French Revolution.
Of all disciplines, history is the one telling us that we have the power to change our destiny, whether we are sons of peasants or daughters of the bourgeoisie.
Powerful stuff for young minds. It was like being struck by lightning. I would go to his class with the elation of an explorer about to discover a continent.
I remember where I sat, the color of my fountain pen and the southeastern light from the window. I remember every detail vividly, as you do when something momentous is taking place in your life.
He was softly spoken, with a kind smile — a man of quiet passion and quick wit. All the while he was, effortlessly, making us free thinkers and citizens. We just did not know yet.
A century after they helped tame religion’s interference in our public life, French teachers find themselves again at the vanguard of a new fight against obscurantism. They need energy, courage and determination, just like the “black hussars” before them. They also need the whole nation behind them.
That is the least we can do, for we now know what we owe them: free thinking.
Agnes Poirier is a Paris-based political commentator, writer and critic.
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