The French Have it Right

By James Buckley   |   November 19, 2020

My wife was born in France, came to the U.S. in the early 1960s with her family, and remained strictly a French citizen with a green card until the mid-1980s, when U.S. law requiring that U.S. citizens have only one loyalty was altered to allow for dual citizenship. She is now a proud nationalized U.S. citizen.

Because my wife is and remains a French national, our children and grandchildren are also French and American. I am, however, strictly American though, curiously, far more of a Francophile than my wife.

I love France for many reasons, not the least of which is that my wife is French and we spent many glorious weeks in France during the early part of our relationship. Before that, my first international flight on Icelandic Airways brought me 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 was in love before I ever stepped on Boulevard St. Michel, bought my first crepe au Grand Marnier, or tasted a hot dog with fiery mustard in a baguette.

But, the French’s insistence upon staying true to their national motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité is what really draws me to the country. France’s continued ardent dedication to its national motto easily outshines this country’s fading fealty to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Free Speech, the Free Practice of Religion, the Right to Peacefully Assemble, and the Right to Bear Arms are all under assault in the U.S. and only meekly defended if at all.

For example:

The response by the French public and their president to the recent killing 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 strictly forbids any representation of Muhammed and those cartoonish drawings are considered particularly blasphemous. 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 didn’t excuse herself told her father about the session, and her father posted an angry video denouncing the teacher, demanding he be reprimanded.

The 18-year-old who killed Mr. Paty followed up the murder with his own post, proudly taking credit for the act, showing the bloodied headless man on the ground, and bragging about his deed.

Police tracked down and killed 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 afterwards, Mr. Macron lauded 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”), “I Am Samuel,” and “No To Barbarism.”

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.”

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 response to what regularly goes on in U.S. schools, colleges, and universities. Administrators at all educational levels have introduced “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” for any students that may take offense with what a teacher or another student does or says in a classroom and even off campus. “Micro-aggressions” 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.

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!


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