The empty rhetoric of ‘je suis Samuel’

19 October 2020

7:28 PM

19 October 2020

7:28 PM

The mother of my daughter didn’t attend yesterday’s rally in Paris to honour the memory of Samuel Paty, the teacher beheaded in a street in the north-west of the French capital last Friday.

A teacher herself in a state school in Seine-Saint-Denis in the north of Paris, a district often cited as the most deprived in France, she was profoundly shocked by the death of Monsieur Paty. Naturally, she has nothing but sympathy for his family but she had no wish to stand shoulder to shoulder with politicians, intellectuals, the judiciary and members of an education authority who for years have offered her profession little or no support in their struggle against Islamic extremism.

Some of those present at the Place de la Republique brandished placards on which was written ‘Je Suis Samuel’, surely a grotesque new low in this age of infantile self-absorption. Many at yesterday’s rally shouting loudly in defence of freedom of expression were at another gathering in Paris last November: an anti-Islamophobe rally at which they were shouting loudly against freedom of expression.

My ex-wife teaches French literature to teenagers. In the three years she’s been teaching – she quit her well paid job in the fashion industry to do something more fulfilling – she’s never been threatened. If she was, however, she has little faith that anything would be done to support or protect her; on the contrary, she suspects she would be seen as the problem by the authorities. Indeed, there are allegations– denied by the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer – that Samuel Paty had been reprimanded for discussing Charlie Hebdo in his class.

Many in France share her disillusionment. For decades successive governments have talked tough but done nothing. ‘They shall not pass!’ thundered Emmanuel Macron on Friday as he stood outside the gates of the college at which Samuel Paty taught. But as the former National Front MP, Marion Marechal, pointed out on twitter, they already have, linking her retort to a recent reportthat showed 40 per cent of teachers self-censor for fear of creating an ‘incident’ in the classroom.

In an op-ed piece in a Sunday newspaper titled ‘The Return of the Terror’ Philippe Val, the former director of Charlie Hebdo, eviscerated the media class for their moral cowardice and intellectual dishonesty. Noting that they are always quick to criticise anyone who questions left-wing movements, Val wrote, ‘on the other hand when a teacher is threatened for doing their job, there is silence on the radio and in editorials. This silence is insupportable. It threatens us all.’

What will be the response of Macron to Friday’s killing? France wants action; they are fed up with empty rhetoric. The right are calling for deportations, and even Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Insoumise, is questioning the wisdom of giving asylum to so many Chechens (the suspect in Friday’s attack is Chechen, as was an Islamist attacker in Paris in 2018 and scores of Chechens rioted in Dijon during the summer).

There are no Chechens in my ex-wife’s school; 65 per cent are of Sub-Saharan origin and 30 per cent North African. Last year she invited me to talk to three of her classes about my life as a writer. I found them attentive and inquisitive, curious and rather gratified that an English writer was talking to them. The fact I was white was also a factor – outside the classroom they have little contact with white people.

The ten minute walk from the RER station to the school took me past a dilapidated housing estate. The local mosque is said to have several extremists among its flock and, as elsewhere in France, they regard schoolchildren as easy prey for their ideology. The battle to stop the next generation of French Muslims becoming radicalised is a challenge requiring political courage and (honesty) of the highest order.

The 18-year-old killer of Samuel Paty didn’t grow up wanting to be an extremist; his immature and impressionable mind was poisoned by adults – allegedly family members and extremists from a nearby mosque who are now in police custody.

That will be of no comfort to the family of Samuel Paty, who leaves behind a child. On the same day he was killed the former partner of Aurélie Châtelain, the woman murdered in Paris in 2015, gave evidence at the trial of her alleged Islamist killer.

He said he ‘would never forgive’ the killer, and nor should he. The time for forgiveness and candles and placards with meaningless slogans such as ‘Je suis professeur’ is over. France is in a war for its soul and it must starting fighting back with vigour, not vacuous virtue signalling.

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