Why the teacher attack hits France's national identity

The shock over the murder of a teacher in a terrorist attack shows how education is a key pillar of French society

Nicholas Hammond

The murder of teacher Samuel Paty in a terrorist attack in France has hit the country's sense of national identity

The attack on teacher Samuel Paty in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine last week was a shocking moment for France.

Our school, The British School of Paris, is only around ten kilometres away from the school where the incident took place and it was obviously deeply upsetting for everyone to hear about.

Indeed, the outpouring of national grief that it caused demonstrates just how much education is seen as one of the pillars of French society and how it represents a huge part of what it means to be French.

Certainly in rural areas but also in most urban areas teachers have a revered status and so the attack really strikes at the heart of France and its key principle of the separation of religion from the state – with education at the heart of that.

The scourge of terrorism

Because the attack happened on the Friday evening of the two-week half-term that the state school system has in France, there has still not been the chance for educators to officially mark the incident and pay their respects to Mr Paty.

That will no doubt happen once they are back and although we are an international school, we take our lead from the Ministère de l'Éducation national (ministry of national education) and so if any minute’s silence is held we will, of course, honour that.

In our school we are not on half-term yet, but we have not had the chance to come together as a school to talk about the incident among staff or pupils that we might have had in more usual times.

However, overall there is clearly a feeling of shock and sadness at the attack. So any way in which we can pay our respects, we will do so when the time is right.

Another sad chapter

The sad reality is that this attack is another unwanted chapter in France’s recent history of terrorist attacks leaving yet more deep scars in the national psyche.

Ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks the country has felt the tension heighten between how society balances fundamental French values of liberty, freedom of speech and the separation of church and state and, as noted, education is a key element of that.

This has meant that there was an underlying fear that schools could, one day, be a target for an attack.

For instance after the Bataclan attack we saw a marked increase in soldiers patrolling the streets and checking in on schools like ours. We, like many schools, increased investment in our security to ensure we were keeping everyone as safe as possible.

Of course this is not unique to France, with many countries sadly knowing all too well the devastation these attacks cause and the impact they have on a nation.

The role of teachers

The latest attack, though, is another reminder that just as French society thinks these atrocities are becoming a thing of the past a new one is committed.

This time, it’s the fact that a teacher was the target that has really shaken so many people deeply. Mr Paty is being posthumously awarded the Legion d'Honneur, amongst other reasons, to stress the importance of educators and their freedom to teach as core to the country’s sense of identity.

Overall, it’s another national and human tragedy for France and one that has no doubt particularly affected teachers deeply – wherever they are in the world.

Nicholas Hammond is the headmaster of The British School of Paris

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