The internal jihad against the French Republic

From the classroom to the street, radicalised Muslims are in revolt against the values of France.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech Politics World

Normally teachers go on strike for better pay or fairer working conditions. In France they’ve gone on strike because they fear being decapitated.

Teachers at a school near Paris have staged a walkout after some Muslims pupils and their parents complained about a classroom display of a Renaissance painting featuring busty nude women. The revolting teachers say they don’t want to suffer the same fate as Samuel Paty, the secondary-school teacher who was stabbed to death and beheaded by a radical Islamist in 2020 for the sin of showing caricatures of Muhammad in a class discussion on free speech. ‘Our colleagues feel threatened and in danger’, said the head of the SNES teaching union this week.

So this is France in 2023, where showing kids Renaissance art can cause you to fear for your life. Where exposing pupils to great paintings is a life-and-death risk. Where teachers fear jihadist vengeance just for doing their jobs. The painting was Diana and Actaeon (1603) by Giuseppe Cesari. It shows nymphs bathing in a river. Some of the classroom of 12- and 13-year-olds reeled in horror upon glimpsing the sinful work. Our religion forbids such obscene renderings of womanly flesh, they cried. Their parents got involved, damning the teacher who displayed the 400-year-old boobs. Soon, false rumours spread that the teacher had also made racist remarks about Muslims. And that was it – recalling that the ritualistic killing of M Paty was likewise fuelled by pupil lies, the teachers walked out.

Their fears are well grounded. Two teachers in France have been murdered by jihadists in recent years. Paty in 2020, and just two months ago Dominique Bernard, a 57-year-old literature teacher who was stabbed to death at his school in Arras allegedly by a Chechen refugee who had shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’. Indeed, also this month we’ve seen the conclusion to the trial of the schoolkids who played a role in the slaughter of Paty. A teenage girl was convicted of making slanderous accusations against Paty (she said he had asked Muslim pupils to leave his classroom, which wasn’t true). Five other teens were found guilty of criminal conspiracy to commit violence for pointing Paty out to his killer in exchange for money. That was a reckless, savage thing to do, given they surely knew death threats had been made against Paty online.

So this week’s striking teachers are not wrong to fear retribution for their ‘crime’ of rattling Islamic sensitivities. All the ingredients are there for another act of medieval reprisal. The display of an allegedly ungodly image. The spread of vicious lies about teacher bigotry. The bristling fury not only of Muslim pupils but of their folks, too. It was good, then, to see France’s education minister, Gabriel Attal, promise the disciplining of the kids who complained about the painting. The role of schools in France is not to bow to the religious prickliness of minority groups, he said, but to ‘train republicans’.

This is the right approach. The insolence of pupils who would dare to baulk at Renaissance art cannot be tolerated. There must be no sensitivity veto, from Muslims or anyone else, over what may and may not be shown in schools. Renaissance nudes, difficult literature and, yes, comedic renderings of Muhammad are entirely legitimate materials in secondary-school classrooms. If even a painting as well-known as Diana and Actaeon, which is housed in the Louvre, were to be hidden from kids for fear of a backlash, that would give jihadists staggering power over schools in France. Attal seems to recognise how serious and dire it is if teachers fear teaching Renaissance art – he has sent a team to the school in question to ensure that the ‘values of the republic’ are being upheld.

The strange, unsettling spat over Diana and Actaeon is not an isolated incident. Schools in France are in the frontline of a low-level, undeclared clash between the values of the French republic and the preoccupations of the more Islamist sections of French society. In the wake of the murder of Samuel Paty, swathes of the French teaching profession confessed to dodging certain subjects for fear of offending Muslim pupils in particular. Nearly half of secondary-school teachers said they avoided or downplayed issues like ‘sexuality, the Holocaust and evolution’ in order to avoid ‘angering Muslim pupils’. A survey found that 49 per cent of secondary-school teachers sometimes steered clear of such topics because they didn’t want to create a ‘scene’. Sexuality, the Holocaust and evolution encompass science, history and truth, all things that it is the noble duty of older generations to impart to the young. In sidelining these ‘controversial’ issues, French teachers abdicate their responsibility to communicate the ideals and practices of Enlightenment to the next generation.

Here we can see that the problem in the French classroom is not just impertinent Muslim youths – or even their possibly radical parents – but also moral and educational cowardice; the French elite’s own preference for an easy life over the tough task of ‘training republicans’. Indeed, the one surely emboldens the other: the more that schools brush sex, nude paintings and even the truth of the Holocaust under the carpet lest they hurt Muslim feelings, the more they centre Muslim feelings, and the more they sacralise the sensitivities of a few over the values of a republic of millions. Schools that downplay even evolution in case Muslim pupils make a ‘scene’ cannot then feign shock if Muslim pupils try their hand by making a ‘scene’, whether about Charlie Hebdo cartoons or Diana and Actaeon. You’ve told them that their emotions can sometimes override the curriculum – what snotty kid wouldn’t exploit that?

This is why the murder of Paty was such a notable, horrifying event in modern French history. In the words of Virginie Le Roy, the lawyer who represented Paty’s family in the trial of the teens who conspired in his death, this was a terror attack unlike any other, for it was an assault not only on life, but also on knowledge. This was the first time ‘a teacher was attacked because he was a teacher’, she said. Paty was targeted ‘because he represents knowledge, awakening and free will’. Indeed. Paty was a martyr to education, a martyr to reason, which makes the silence on his death in France’s neighbouring countries, including Britain, all the more sickening. The killing of Paty for challenging his pupils to think – that is, for being a teacher – will surely have awoken France to the danger of elevating pupil feeling over teacher authority. Gabriel Attal’s firm response to the Diana and Actaeon scandal provides hope that lessons – pun intended – have indeed been learnt.

It’s not just France. Britain’s educational establishment also wilts in the face of Islamic sensitivities. Who can forget the case earlier this year of a boy with autism in Wakefield being suspended from school for ‘slightly’ scuffing a copy of the Koran? Or, of course, the tragedy of the Batley Grammar teacher, hounded into hiding by fundamentalists for the Paty-like ‘sin’ of showing images of Muhammad in a class discussion of blasphemy and liberty. Not one politician or teaching union stood with that tormented man. A society that fails to defend its most important public servants – teachers – loses the right to call itself civilised.

Witness, too, the BBC’s report on the Diana and Actaeon controversy. One word is missing: Muslim. The Beeb flat-out refuses to tell us one of the most pertinent facts of this case – that it was members of a certain religious minority that kicked up a fuss. It is testament to cultural cowardice here, too, that our public broadcaster fails to tell the truth about the social problems afflicting our friends in France.

Make no mistake: those social problems are vast. France faces an internal jihad, a low-level intifada against its values. From massive acts of violence – the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Bataclan massacre, the Bastille Day massacre in Nice – to the daily chipping away of republican confidence in schools and elsewhere, it feels like the republic is at risk. Those of us who admire that republic, and especially its values of ‘knowledge, awakening and free will’, ought to be offering a lot more solidarity. Vive Diana and Actaeon, vive la France.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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Topics Free Speech Politics World


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