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On October 16th the decapitation in broad daylight of school teacher Samuel Paty near Paris by an 18-year-old Islamist of Chechen origin raised by one more notch the level of the violence that began some years ago in France. Coincidentally it was the anniversary of the beheading of Queen Marie-Antoinette in 1793 by the revolutionary government under the terror laws, after a sham trial.
Teachers are an influential professional body in France regarded as a pillar of the Republican dispensation since public schools (state owned, unlike the British ones that go by the same designation) were founded in the late 19th century as seedbeds for new democratic and secular generations to be freed from the millennial tutorship of the Catholic Church and its royalist allies. Old mutual suspicions endure between the laïc (the French equivalent of secular) educational system and religious institutions. The murder of Paty therefore had an added impact on the nation at large and he was proclaimed a hero of the Republic.
The predominantly leftist affiliations of the teaching profession are to account for the pro-immigration sentiments of its members. Yet ironically, they are among the most exposed to the problematic consequences of the rapid changes in the social fabric as new generations of pupils of African and Asian origin and in large part of Muslim confession challenge the institution and confront teachers with difficult situations. Many of them, women in particular report being disrespected, bullied and abused by teenagers influenced by the gangland milieu in which they grow in relatively segregated ethnic neighbourhoods.
Warnings of brewing social strife were issued since the nineteen eighties, when immigration, legal and illegal, resulted in the rapid growth of foreign communities increasingly alienated from the French mainstream and resentful of the former colonists and their values. However successive governments, state institutions and major NGOs refused to pay heed and usually accused whistleblowers (among them leaders of the National Front) of being nationalist bigots if not fascists. They kept congratulating themselves for the ability of French society to assimilate all cultures into a happy diverse family and avoided drawing consequences from the rising climate of lawlessness in underprivileged suburbs. They pretended that the adolescent bands that torched cars, defaced buildings, dealt drugs, skirmished with the police, insulted France and called for Jihad were just turbulent ‘uncivil’ kids. However, when the first major terrorist attacks began it was no longer possible to ignore the link between the new menace and the atmosphere of rebellion in which it had hatched.
In January 2015 the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff members by homegrown terrorists struck the first peal of the emergency toll. That satirical publication specialized in often pornographic and obscene articles and cartoons which did not spare either nuns, the Pope, Christ or the Virgin Mary. However, it crossed a bridge too far when it carried a series of cartoons on the Prophet of Islam. Two young brothers of Algerian descent took it on themselves to ‘punish the blasphemy’ regarded as one of the worst sins in Islam. The Charlie Hebdo team had been warned of the risk but had gone ahead with the publication, unmindful of possible consequences. Their killings aroused nationwide outrage and, prodded by the powerful press lobby, the government took the lead in organizing mass marches and ceremonies while claiming that Charlie Hebdo was a symbol of French freedom no less. Even though the revulsion caused by the barbaric executions was genuine the left wing orchestrated the glorification of a scurrilous and vulgar sheet while the rest of the society remained more reserved about the attempt to legitimize obscenity in print as a victim of martyrdom.
Five years and several major terrorist attacks later the trial of the Charlie Hebdocase (the killers had been shot dead by the police) reopened the wounds. Schools were instructed to bring up the topics in classrooms and Samuel Paty conducted a discussion on the cartoons which he displayed to his pupils after giving the option to Muslims among them to leave the room. This initiative created a firestorm of protest among some members of the Islamic community and, through the social media a young Chechen living hundreds of kilometers away was informed and came to carry out the gruesome deed.
The poorly covered rift in French society has widened into a chasm between an agnostic or skeptical majority and a large conservative and estranged minority feeling disdained and neglected and tempted by the siren calls of fanatical preachers and recruiters who offer Islamic fundamentalism as a lifeboat for those who are shipwrecked at the bottom of the social scale. The actions of President Macron to curb the Jihadist menace and scare the dissidents into submission may be too little too late. Closing the proverbial stable doors after the horses are bolted out is not much more useful than indulging in gratuitous provocations against Islamic beliefs to show the faithful that they should get used to it. Many spur-of-the-moment closures of mosques and religious institutions may not withstand judicial scrutiny and, by offending law-abiding Muslims, play into the hands of the radicals who strive to separate the community from the rest of the population in order to stir up wider conflicts.
The laws that prevent expelling any citizen who has no other nationality and the inherent restrictions about arresting people who have not yet committed a crime even if they are highly suspect paralyse the legal machinery and the actions of NGOs and supra-national juridical institutions such as EU courts further impede effective reactions.
While a comprehensive solution to this domestic crisis may not be in sight certain questions that have generally been avoided in public debate are being asked in private by more and more people. To quote only three which are relevant in countries around the world:
First, Why does France invite or accept so many immigrants without having the ability to integrate them and yet insist on the right of its citizens to insult and demean religions in public media in the name of secularism and freedom of expression? This freedom is limited in effect when certain other communities are the targets. The Jews are a case in point and any grave slander or abuse against their race and religion is severely punished. Are there different rules for different peoples? Is the State not responsible for the safety of all its citizens and should it not therefore sanction public insults and attacks on the symbols that some hold sacred in order to prevent civil conflict?
Second, Why is France providing asylum to refugees who may have committed terrorist acts in their own countries (Russia. Syria, Iraq, Iran etc…) by claiming to uphold human rights all over the world? Is that not inviting trouble at home at the cost of its own population which has no say in those decisions?
Third, Why are school teachers tasked with discussing matters of blasphemy and obscenity with their students? We all knew that education was politicized mostly to the benefit of left-wing parties but is it now about teaching students not to respect religions?
The case of France is an object lesson for other European and non-European countries and it shows that blind adhesion to abstract principles on ideological grounds can lead nations astray and might even bring about their undoing.