PURELY POLITICAL, by James Buckley
I love France for many reasons, not the least of which is that my wife (who is French), and I spent many glorious weeks there during the early part of our relationship.
Before that, as a 21-year-old, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, I took my first international flight on Icelandic Airways to Paris via New York to Luxembourg and a long late-night bus ride through the French countryside to the City of Light.
The bus driver was a fan of Edith Piaf, whose nasally songs resonated on his loudspeaker all the way to Paris. I didn’t know what she was singing about at the time, but I could tell she was tearing her heart out. I fell in love with her and France by the time I got off the bus somewhere near Boulevard St. Michel.
After tasting my first crepe au Grand Marnier and a hot dog with fiery mustard served not on, but in, a baguette, I realized this was my kind of place.
OK, it’s a socialist nation, and the unions have an iron grip on the affairs of state, but my love of the country and its people (well, most of them) supersedes all that. And the French’s insistence upon staying true to their national motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité is, for me, what I most admire. France’s ardent dedication to its national motto easily outpaces our own fading fealty to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which is supposed to guarantee Freedom of Speech, the Free Practice of Religion, the Right to Peacefully Assemble and the Right to Bear Arms — all of which are under constant assault in the U.S. today and only meekly defended if at all.
The response by the French public and its president to last year’s murder of 47-year-old French high-school teacher Samuel Paty is a case in point. Mr. Paty displayed some of the cartoon drawings of Islam’s prophet Mohammed, originally printed in a Danish newspaper and reprinted in a satirical Paris weekly called Charlie Hebdo, during a civic education class. The Muslim religion forbids any representation of Muhammed, and those cartoonish drawings are considered particularly blasphemous by strict religionists. Mr. Paty paid with his life, murdered on a public street in Paris by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, who then beheaded the unfortunate teacher.
The trial of the Muslim terrorists who shot up the Charlie Hebdo offices five years previous, killing 17 people including 11 writers, cartoonists and editors of the publication, was taking place at the time of the class, so tensions were high.
Mr. Paty was using the drawings (that Charlie Hebdo had reproduced that week to honor the memory of the victims of that terrible event) to illustrate why Muslim fanatics did what they did and why it was wrong for them to have done so. He stressed that France’s tradition of the open dissemination of ideas had to take precedence over any religion.
Thoughtfully, Mr. Paty suggested that any Muslim in his class who may be offended could exit the classroom with his permission before he took out the drawings for the students to examine for themselves. Nevertheless, a 13-year-old Muslim student from the class who at first claimed she had stayed for the presentation but later revealed she had lied about it and admitted she was told about the drawings by another classmate, told her father about the session. Her father then posted an angry video denouncing the teacher, demanding he be reprimanded.
The 18-year-old who killed Mr. Paty, after being inspired by the student’s father’s post, followed up the murder with his own post. He proudly took credit for the act, displaying the bloodied headless man on the ground and bragging about his deed.
Police tracked down and ended up killing the young man during a confrontation.
President Emmanuel Macron of France attended Mr. Paty’s funeral, during which French military in full-dress uniform carried the teacher’s casket.
“He was killed,” the president said, “because Islamists want our future… and,” he boldly proclaimed, “they will never have it.”
Immediately afterward, Mr. Macron praised the teacher, giving him France’s highest award: the Legion d’Honneur. Mr. Paty was also named a Commander of Academic Palms, another high honor.
After the memorial, thousands gathered in a public square in support of the dead high school teacher, many in the throng bearing signs reading “Je suis Prof” (“I am a teacher”), “Je suis Samuel” and “No To Barbarism.”
To send the message home that such killings will not, cannot, be tolerated, students throughout France, from kindergarten through high school, were greeted by a new curriculum item on the very first day back from summer vacation. All – even kindergarteners – observed a minute of silence for Mr. Paty, before being given a lecture about the importance of freedom of speech. Younger students were spared many details of the killing, but discussion became more graphic for students in the higher levels.
President Macron went on Snapchat to deliver another homily: “Being French is not just about living in France,” he intoned. “It’s also about rights and duties.”
Compare that to the type of response that regularly goes on in U.S. schools, colleges and universities in the wake of horrific or even simply unpleasant events.
Administrators at all educational levels have introduced “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” for any student who may take offense with what a teacher or another student does or says in a classroom and even off campus. “Microaggressions” are “revealed” and condemned, speech codes are introduced bearing proscriptions against “hate speech,” advising that much that once passed as protected free speech is now construed as harmful or hurtful to “the most vulnerable” and “marginalized,” making them feel “unsafe.”
For the most part such speech, especially on campus, is currently forbidden and punished. Teachers and professors in U.S. schools and universities who resist the trend are often harassed or denied tenure because of their political views.
President Macron’s solid resistance against censuring Mr. Paty’s classroom activities, and his forceful defense both of freedom of speech and France’s culture of tolerance, is a lesson our own leaders, teachers, school administrators and politicians could do well to adopt.
Vive la France!