Matthieu Faucher, an atheist, faced a years-long legal battle after being accused of violating France's official "neutrality and secularism" standard by teaching about Christian history.
After school authorities received an anonymous complaint of proselytism, Faucher was suspended — despite parents' protests. His superiors validated the sanction, and in June 2017, he was assigned to a different school.
Faucher denied failing "in his duty to neutrality and secularism," and he won a suit against school authorities in a local court. The Ministry of National Education challenged the court's decision, which was subsequently validated by an administrative court in Bordeaux on Dec. 22.
While he was happy about the Bordeaux court's decision, Faucher said that "much bigger things are at play," including the teaching of the history of religion by secular teachers.
"I was penalized for working with a book that is a pillar of our civilization, which poses questions," he argued. "I taught culture, not catechism — only culture. And it is the students who ask for it."
The administrative court found Faucher "did not at any time manifest any religious belief" in the classroom, since the texts and films he used were "within the framework of a French curriculum" and addressed "themes related to the moral and civic education program."
Minister of national education Jean-Michel Blanquer, however, questioned Faucher's method, saying he displayed an "attitude marked by proselytism."
Faucher developed a curriculum on Christianity in response to students asking about Jesus Christ. He has recalled elementary-school students asking him, "Who is that man doing gymnastics and hanging on a cross at the entrance to the village?" "Why don't we have classes on Easter?" and "Who is Jesus?"
During the 2016–2017 academic year, Faucher decided to answer these questions from a historical (as opposed to theological) viewpoint and to address the Bible's influence on literature.
Faucher told La Nouvelle République there is a difference between "positive secularism" and hostility to religion, adding, "Some want to erase Christianity when that religion is one of the foundations of our Judeo-Christian culture. To do so would separate us from 1,500 years of history."
He cited Catholic academic Dominique Ponnau, who has asked how France can assimilate foreigners when "we have become strangers to our own culture."
Faucher saw the dechristianization of children had created a cultural void, and prepared a teaching unit entitled "Christianity in the Texts: Literary Study of Biblical Extracts," consulting with his students' parents regarding his plans. He intended to teach his students about various passages of the Bible and to screen director Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Disney's Prince of Egypt.
Faucher said that while other religions should be explored in public schools, "more ample room should be made for Christianity, which is the basis of our history."
Some say the case highlights important questions about the role of religion in an ostensibly secular State.
Back in 2018, French premier Emmanuel Macron tried to mend fences with the Catholic bishops of France, saying that official secularism does not "have the function of denying the spiritual." While secularism is foundational to the French Republic, it has been strained not only by Muslim terrorism and separatism but also by disagreements over the nuances of its definition. A recent legal case has brought to the fore a national discussion about teaching religion in secular public schools.
In an interview with InfoBae.com, historian Jean Sévillia lamented the current environment in Europe and its understanding of secularism — called laïcité in France, the product of conflict between the Catholic Church and the French State. Sévillia said, "Western civilization hates itself," adding, "We are present at the crack-up of our civilization, a break in the transmission of culture, as well as an overinterpretation of secularism."
Republican France, born of the French Revolution of the late 1700s, had its nascent days marked by the wholesale suppression of monasteries, the genocide of priests and religious and even a war on lay Catholics that ran well into the 19th century. Since then, France has been dubbed as the "eldest daughter" of the Catholic Church but also a "Catholic country with a secular culture." While 30% of the French are atheists, Catholic processions, shrines and other signs of religion remain a part of the general culture, even though weekly attendance at Mass is low.
Growing displays of Muslim culture and religion have increasingly strained the definition of French polity and culture. Since 2014, students in French public schools have been barred from displaying religious symbols or garb — including Muslim headscarves. The integration of Muslims in French life has been questioned of late because of repeated acts of Muslim terrorism. In October 2020, for instance, French people were horrified when a schoolteacher was beheaded by a Muslim who was offended by the teacher's remarks about Islam. In 2016, a Muslim man stabbed a priest to death at Mass, and in 2013, a Muslim man murdered a rabbi and three children as part of a wider terror spree.
Essayist Jean-Paul Brighelli wrote in "Readings for an End of Civilization: The Hatred of Culture," that "cultivated people no longer have any role to play in our civilization."
He further noted, in online journal Causeur.fr, that the year 2020 marked the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae, musing:
Who are we? ...Who remembers that 300 Spartans died to give the Greeks time to save Europe from a greater invasion, just as Don Juan of Austria did at Lepanto, and like Nicholas of Salm in 1529 and John III Sobieski in 1683 at Vienna saved it from Turkish ambitions?
Educators, he wrote, replaced the study of Greek and Latin with a preoccupation on "ecology, showing solidarity by celebrating Ramadan, and academic degrees in vagrancy: these are the indispensable modern competencies."
Fr. Philippe Capelle-Dumont, former president of the Catholic Academy of France, told Causeur.fr, "The Church, not exclusively but principally, made a nation of France and a continent of Europe."
Capelle-Dumont, the author of more than 40 books on philosophy and theology, said that while the modern world may deny it, traces of religion are "rooted in and traverse much of its structural issues."
One need only look at a map of the world, the priest said, to see that it is in Christian and Western countries where human liberty and respect for women is enshrined. He continued, "It would also be advisable to put an end to all the euphemisms which are used to designate the offensives or the strategies of the [Muslim] fundamentalists and which take part in a fearful leveling between the religions, thus masking their angular differences."
To reestablish right order, Capelle-Dumont urged his countrymen to "put an end to the misinterpretation towards the Caesar/God binomial" recalling that "it is not, as is unfortunately repeated, a separation between the temporal and the spiritual but a distinction between the political and the divine order. ... Caesar is not God."