France: French unions lead mourning of assassinated teacher Samuel Paty

published 19 October 2020 updated 13 October 2023

In gatherings all over France, tribute was paid to Samuel Paty, 47, a history, and geography teacher who was the victim of a terrorist attack near his school, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in the Paris suburbs. Paty was decapitated following an Internet campaign against the use in his class of a caricature of Mohammed. The apparent murderer, a man of 18 years of age, was killed in a confrontation with police.

Paty had used the same caricature in his courses on freedom of expression in previous years without incident. It was one of the images published by “Charlie Hebdo”, a satiric magazine. That was the “justification” provided for an attack on 7 January 2015 where 12 people were killed and 11 injured. Four others were killed during a related hostage taking at a Kosher supermarket. People accused of helping the killers are currently standing trial for their role in the attacks.

At that time, there was a massive response in France and globally against the attack combined with the defence of freedom of expression. Journalists and other staff of Charlie Hebdo were killed in their offices. Just as journalists risk death for exercising freedom of expression, the murder of Samuel Paty shows that teachers can also pay that ultimate price for exercising their profession.

The internet campaign that seems to have inspired the assassin, points to another danger to education and free societies. School authorities and teachers may feel compelled to engage in self-censorship and avoid teaching in a manner that encourages free discussion and learning.

In a joint statement by French trade unions, supported by others, assemblies of mourning and tribute were called for 15:00 on Sunday, the 18th. Thousands of people gathered at the Place de la Republic in Paris as well as in Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nice, Nantes and other cities.  EI General Secretary David Edwards joined an observance in front of the French consulate in Brussels.

In their statement, the unions decried the fact that Paty was the target of attacks for several days before the killing. They defended responsible teaching, saying, “Like any teacher, he sought to prepare young people for the exercise of critical thinking, an essential condition for full citizenship.”

The statement went on to argue that teachers must be supported in the exercise of their profession and that trade unions are “committed to freedom of expression and reject extremism and obscurantism”.  They also said that they will respond to the hatred that cost the life of Samuel Paty, with “the promotion of liberty, equality, and fraternity”.

France has a long history of secularism. For education, that means a strict separation of the State and religion. The State does not promote or discourage any religion. For schools and teachers to be attacked based on religious creed goes deeply against core values that are fundamental to democracy.

Education unions met with the Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer and the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, on the morning of the 17th to discuss the protection of teachers and freedom of expression. President Macron has announced that there will be an official event marking the terrorist attack on Wednesday, 21 October. EI has been in touch with UNESCO on this question.

In a letter to Education International’s French member organisations, General Secretary David Edwards expressed the solidarity and support of the world’s educators and their trade unions and affirmed those values that Samuel Paty died defending. He declared that “Freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, have been hard won.”

In the struggle to defend democracy, the role of teachers is essential to deter the forces that would destroy it. In this fight, Edwards stated that, “trade union organisations are, more than ever, on the front line”.