By Fabrice Fresse*. This article follows Fabrice’s earlier review of education and radicalization.
Since the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, French political leaders have emphasized the essential role of education in the prevention of radicalization. The educational community is responsible for shaping the involved citizens of the future, helping them to develop their critical thinking skills and become digitally educated. To serve the youth of the Republic in these times, French leaders say, members of the educational community should tackle new questions and address difficult situations.
Even if “teaching is choosing”, as the French saying goes, this is challenging. Making choices in the field of radicalization is a difficult and complex process and can lead to dead ends or even counterproductive outcomes.
This can be seen in a government move after the Charlie attacks. In February 2015, the French Department of Education delivered a four-page booklet titled Prévenir la Radicalisation des jeunes (Preventing youth radicalization) to all the principals and staff working in the field of education. It defined radicalization, identified situations, and presented steps to follow (Ministère de l’Education Nationale, de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche, 2015).
New questions emerged: What is the threshold for saying someone is radicalized? What are the visible signs of radicalization? Are they universal?
In an article in Le Parisien, the testimony of a high school student highlighted the tensions introduced by the publication of this booklet. The student drops out because he said his principal told him the he had a choice between the beard he had grown for religious reasons and school – “cut it or leave”. According to the student, even teachers had longer beards than his and nothing in the student handbook prevented any male student from growing a beard for religious reasons.
Others chime in. A friend of the student testifies against the high school staff. According to her, the school is responsible for the marginalization of her friend. The mother of another student contacts the principal of the school to share her concerns about her doubts concerning potential radicalization.
Invoking his right not to divulge information, perhaps under directions from his seniors, the principal decides to make no public comment about the situation. His silence is quickly interpreted in different eyes as an excess of zeal, an illustration of his bias, or a sign of his professionalism in implementing national guidance (Haus, 2016).
This is an example of decisions being made without measuring complex impacts that can weaken local institutions. Even if the steps described in the booklet do not seem to have been followed, and even though this type of incident does not take place every day in France, the incident reveals the real difficulties that civil servants are facing. They need to respect religious beliefs while applying security principles and showing understanding to parents or students worried about signs of radicalization. In efforts to protect the majority, they risk excluding and marginalizing some students by mistake, even driving some to drop out. This can defeat the whole purpose of deradicalization policies, since drop-outs are more at risk and more vulnerable to external influences and radicalization. Furthermore, one can easily see how such incidents could be discussed on social media and instrumentalized by extremists.
Additional concerns appear in the senatorial report Faire revenir la République à l’école (That the Republic comes back in our schools), which reviewed reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in the education system. Mrs. Françoise Laborde, president of the commission, and Mr. Jacques Grosperrin, the rapporteur, paint a portrait of post-attack France that helps to understand the tensions that weaken our schools and threaten their very foundations and values.
On January 8 2015, teachers were asked to observe one minute of silence and then open discussions with the goal of “addressing the needs, answering the questions that can be expressed in classrooms” (Vallaud-Belkacem, 2015). The email sent by the Minister of Education was a legitimate request from the Republic to its civil servants and students to pay homage to the victims and be united in a citizens’ moment, where the values of the Republic are discussed and reaffirmed.
For the most part, the recommendations were implemented without any difficulty, as one might expect of a principled injunction to link students to national reflection and unity. But there were problems in quite a few schools – at least 400 incidents were recorded by the investigation committee (Grosperrin & Laborde, 2015). These incidents took the form of various provocations.
Attempts to understand how these tensions arose revealed endemic problems in French schools and indeed French society itself. Without professional training on how to react to extreme violence, teachers felt alone when they had to lead these exchanges with students, even in the best conditions. Some did not open discussions at all because they did not dare to or they feared they would not be able to control the discussion. In some cases, teachers opposed to secularism – ensured by French law in all public spaces since 1905 – reportedly politicized exchanges or simply refused to implement the recommendations. Most of them were teachers hired under contract.
As for students, some do not feel French and think that they are excluded from the Republic, so they were not Charlie Hebdo. The internet was a factor here, as it can facilitate the dissemination of disinformation, “fake news”, and conspiracy theories.
All of this made for a mixed picture. Overall, the report notes, there was a “satisfying level of understanding and acknowledgement of the values of the French Republic”. However, “there are significant differences between students in public and private schools, between schools in zones of educational priority and other schools on the national territory, between boys and girls; these differences being a reflection of the complexity of the subject” (Mons, in Grosperrin & Laborde, 2015).
Different views on teachers’ places, roles and priorities are another source of tension. In fact, differences have been amplified to the point where French society was fractured during the last elections.
Problems can also be seen in international comparisons. When educational systems are ranked, the French system has high levels of inequality and does not enable all students to develop fundamental skills (OECD, 2015). In this context, French teachers, who major in the field they will teach, have to make difficult choices, as highlighted by Mr. Sébastien Sihr, General Secretary of the national union of primary and middle school teachers:
A significant number of our society’s emergencies are translated into educational demands. Facing the number of car accidents, schools have to design and implement an initiation to prevent road accidents. The same thing is expected from teachers in the field of sustainable development. These topics are undoubtedly important, but multiplying demands are adding weight to our responsibilities and missions (Sihr, in Grosperrin & Laborde, 2015).
Many teachers are not worried about their competence in their field, designing teaching strategies, or finding tools. They are worried because they are intellectuals who feel that they have to choose between teaching a discipline and teaching transversal subjects such as media literacy or global citizenship. In an article entitled “The School of the Republic has imploded, and no longer exists,” the philosophy teacher Berenice Levet brought this issue into relief:
The President of the Republic declared a “great involvement of schools to support the values of the Republic” when he should have decided on a great involvement for public instruction. He encouraged the multiplication of debates in class, while what was urgently required was to ask students to be quiet. When students are invited to voice their opinions, they are being deluded by the illusion that they are able to think. However, in order to think, you need to master a language; a language that nurtures itself with literature. This is precisely the mission of schools. They have to teach them how to shape, elaborate, and articulate thoughts. …against obscurantism, conspiracy theories and other propaganda, we have no other weapon than the teaching of complex thought and a critical sense that needs to be separated from indignation, unlike what some teachers believed. It is the art of establishing distinctions, or to separate if we refer to its etymology (Levet, 2016).
At the crossroads of these testimonies, the presidential campaign had, like every presidential campaign, widened the fissures and amplified the weaknesses of our educational system, giving teachers the feeling that they were not focused on the core of what education should be.
In fact, if the prevention of violent extremism is approached operationally and realistically, many difficult questions emerge.
For teachers, are history and social studies teachers supposed to be the ones in charge, as they are best placed to conduct debates while building knowledge in their classrooms, as recommended by the senatorial report of 2015? What is the best way to train teachers who have had no training in the prevention of violent extremism? How can teachers and principals working in different areas have access to consistent and high quality professional development, across the country? How should they assess the quality of efforts to prevent violent extremism?
As for the curriculum, how can France help its students and staff develop global competencies and guarantee access to high quality active citizenship education when these competencies are not assessed formally by national exams? To take an example, how can a math teacher develop the skills of the future e-citizen, involved and responsible, without sacrificing the Thales Theorem or linear functions?
What about resources that can help teachers prevent violent extremism? As they are working full time, do they have the time to learn about the resources and integrate and adapt them in their curricula? Are there specialists in the field in the school districts where the teachers work? Are they clearly identifiable? What are their roles and missions? Do they design lifelong professional development plans, or do they wait for school staff to get in touch with them, expressing their needs and demands? 
Looking abroad, how can international comparisons help stakeholders to think dynamically and systemically, hopefully developing new innovative solutions that generate results?
In sum, and this is the challenge facing all of France, how does a teacher deal with a student who is not Charlie?
*Fabrice Fresse is an expert at the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 and an expert on Quality Assessment at the National Agency Erasmus + France. He is also the Head of International Relations / Life Long Learning for the non-profit organization EvalUE in Bordeaux. He is an alumnus of the Transatlantic Educators Dialogue, an educational diplomatic initiative spearheaded by the European Union Centre of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Fabrice specialized in the study and analysis of national and supranational policies designed to prevent violent extremism and radicalization in the field of education.
 In her work, Sandrine Turkieltaub contextualizes and analyzes testimonies gathered from people occupying different spaces in the French society, related to the world of education, directly or indirectly. Turkieltaub, Sandrine. « Les professionnels démunis face aux processus de radicalisation », Vie sociale, vol. 18, no. 2, 2017, pp. 157-171.
 Similar to Title IV schools, zones of educational priority have schools where the student/teacher ratio is lower than average, teachers’ wages are higher, and funds are provided to support various pedagogical projects. The compensatory logics is to “give more to the ones who have less.”
 The article on the role of district specialists in preventing radicalization was released on December 16th 2015. It was written by a former principal, presented as an expert, whose identity was kept secret due to heightened safety measures. The aim was to help principals and teachers identify students who are in the process of being radicalized. “Un référent prévention de la radicalisation nommé à l’académie“ – La Dépêche.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.