In the wake of the distressing events in France, the Middle Eastern and Francophone societies recently hosted a joint meeting in which three teachers from the Modern Foreign Language Department at Eton reflected on the rise of extremism and prejudice in France, informed by their personal insights and expertise.

As an open online meeting, we decided to begin with a tribute to Samuel Paty, whose death in October inspired such a wave of emotion.. We agreed that an ideal place to then begin our discussion was to establish the historical context of the long relationship between the cultural constructs we now call ‘France’ and ‘Islam’.

Mr Shirwani explored the role of contemporary French Muslim intellectuals, many of whom have published comments expressing solidarity with their fellow citizens, condemning terrorism and offering insight into how we should approach this crisis. One of these figures is Rachid Benzine, who has proposed the study of history as an antidote to bigotry: “faute d’Histoire, on se raconte des histoires et ça finit par faire des histoires” – participants had some fun debating the best translation of this quotation!

Mr Shirwani also offered some historical background in an account of some “fruitful exchanges” (such as Antoine Galland’s translation of 1001 Nights and Shaykh Rifa Tahtawi’s travelogue about Paris) and some “traumatic experiences” (such as Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the colonisation of Algeria). 

Monsieur Poul and Mademoiselle Herbommez then shared their personal experience of la laïcité, the idea of French secularism which is raising considerable debate at the moment, and which is intended as a means to secure freedom and equality for all citizens. It was agreed that maintaining the French value of fraternité, especially between people of different religions, was also of huge importance to ensuring future peace.

Given the scrutiny of teachers and education in France, it was particularly insightful to hear from three teachers who share a deep passion for French affairs and the nature of modern education. Attendees may not have left with solutions to today’s issues in France, but they were certainly enlightened by a fascinating discussion.