How to Teach about Violence in France

In the wake of the horrific murder of history teacher Samuel Paty, historians are grappling with how to teach students and the public about the history of violence in France.

Paty taught history and geography at a collège (middle school) in a suburb near Paris and was killed in a brutal knife attack by a militant on Friday.

Photo: History teacher Samuel Paty.

Professor Jean-Clément Martin (Professeur émérite d’Histoire, Université Paris 1, and Ancien directeur de l’Institut d’Histoire de la Révolution Française) has written an essay dedicated to Samuel Paty on the complexities of teaching the many violent episodes in French history.

Martin observes that “La mort abominable est un choc pour la communauté nationale. Pour la communauté des enseignants d’histoire elle a une dimension particulière : parce que notre collègue a été tué pour avoir présenté des caricatures et avoir appelé à la liberté d’opinion à propos de croyances et de violences, nous nous devons, nous lui devons, de réfléchir ensemble sur la façon dont nous enseignons les épisodes violents de l’histoire de France.

Martin calls for a “rélexion pédagogique sur ces événements sans recourir aux idéologies et aux polémiques. …

The politicization of some of the massive protests over the weekend in remembrance of Samuel Paty disturbed some observers. Martin notes “mon insatisfaction devant les hommages qui ont été rendus hier dans le pays.”

Martin criticizes those who seek to defend French values of freedom of speech by presenting a sanitized version of French history as a bastion of freedom and non-violent toleration. He argues that “il faut alors abandonner des idées convenues, en commençant par ne pas dire que la France est le pays des Lumières ou des Droits de l’homme. …

The appropriate response, according to Martin, is to engage in a reflection on the long history of violence within France, from the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, to the September Massacres of 1792, to the execution of Louis XVI, to the Vendée Civil War, and beyond. Martin is a historian who published extensively on the French Revolution and the Vendée Civil War, so his examples naturally focus on the period of the French Revolutionary Wars.

In the face of violence, Martin presents a defense of historical methodology: “Revenons aux fondamentaux de l’enseignement de l’histoire, établir les faits, refuser les idées reçues et participer aux combats pour la vérité historique, qui ce qu’elle est, fragile, modeste mais fondée sur l’essentiel : la libre discussion en pratiquant le recours à la logique et à la vérification, le respect des opinions en exigeant leur totale transparence.

He concludes: “C’est pour avoir exercé cette tâche souvent si mal comprise que Samuel Paty est mort, c’est en continuant cette pratique que nous lui rendrons justice et que nous pourrons garantir notre propre existence.

Jean-Clément Martin’s essay is published online at Mediapart.

I have posted essays on the killing of Samuel Paty and the rallies in his memory over the weekend.

This entry was posted in Atrocities, Civil Conflict, Comparative Revolutions, Early Modern Europe, European History, French History, French Revolution and Napoleon, French Wars of Religion, History in the Media, History of Violence, Human Rights, Paris History, Political Culture, Revolts and Revolutions, Terrorism, War, Culture, and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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