“We are afraid of seeing our name published on social networks” – L’Express

We are afraid of seeing our name published on social

“Everything can change very quickly. We all have in mind the risk of seeing a student put our name on social networks by wrongly accusing us of slippage or unproven facts,” breathes Sabrina*, her voice full of emotion. This teacher from the Paris region, once assured that her first name will be changed and her anonymity completely guaranteed, recounts the fear she felt this winter during a school trip. That day, one of her final year students refused to remove her veil, as required by the law prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in school. The discussion gets worse, the high school student, supported by some of her classmates, grabs her phone to complain to her family and friends. “I have never experienced such a level of stress. Who knows what this young girl, wrongly convinced that she was the victim of some form of aggression from her teachers, would be able to say?” continues the history and geography teacher, on March 27, the day after the announcement of the departure of the principal of the Maurice-Ravel school complex, for “security reasons”.

Sabrina’s story echoes that of this school head from the 20th arrondissement of Paris who was threatened with death on the Internet after an altercation with an adult student who had refused to reveal herself in the school grounds on February 28. The latter’s complaint for violence was dismissed for “insufficiently characterized offense”, the prosecution announced this week. “I have decided that the State is going to file a complaint against this young woman for slanderous denunciation,” then announced the Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, on TF1. Before adding: “Secularism [est] constantly put to the test. And we see, there is a form of Islamist entryism which manifests itself in particular in our educational establishments.”

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All teachers today have in mind the assassination of Samuel Paty, also a victim of this infernal spiral on the Web, where his name and that of the Bois-d’Aulne college, where he worked, had circulated. How many of them are today victims of “doxing”, this practice of attacking one of them by revealing personal information? The phenomenon is difficult to quantify. According to a survey by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation released in 2021, 13% of teachers questioned say they have been the subject of insults or slanderous comments on the Internet from students or parents of students.

“Great loneliness” of teachers

Not all of these attacks are necessarily linked to secularism, but the protests linked to the ban on the wearing of religious symbols or certain teachings are the most sensitive. Since the assassination of Samuel Paty, the practice of doxing is punishable by the Penal Code, via article 36 of the law reinforcing respect for the principles of the Republic. It is now punishable by three years of imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros. This penalty can be up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 75,000 euros when the perpetrator directly attacks a person holding public authority or charged with a public service mission. “Everyone is now quite mobilized around these stories, which encourages education staff to file complaints,” explains Francis Lec, lawyer for SNPDEN, the main union of school heads.

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Mandated to ensure the defense of the former principal of the Maurice-Ravel high school, the lawyer is currently in charge of another case in which four defendants are called to appear on May 31 before the Paris criminal court. The facts date back to 2022: for almost a year, an adult student from the Romain-Rolland high school, in Ivry-sur-Seine (Val-de-Marne), evaded the regulations by showing up to class with her hair covered in a headband and wearing an abaya. Despite numerous reminders from the head of the establishment and the CPE, she refused to comply with respect for secularism. Which earned him permanent exclusion from high school. During the month of June 2023, aggressive messages targeting the principal and describing the school as “Islamophobic” circulated on TikTok. They generate nearly 400,000 views.

The proliferation of messaging services such as WhatsApp, but also the growing weight of social networks like TikTok or Snapchat are fueling the phenomenon. “The lack of regulation of these platforms with amplifying effects makes educational staff feel totally helpless and find themselves plunged into great solitude,” underlines Senator Laurent Lafon (Centrist Union), author of a recent report on the attacks including teachers are victims. “The problem with attacks on networks is that they completely escape our notice and sometimes go under the radar, which can be very anxiety-inducing,” worries François De Sauza, co-founder of the Vigilance colleges and high schools collective. And the teacher recounts the recent case of this colleague who was violently attacked in the middle of class by a young girl, while he was explaining the concept of French secularism. “She began to tell classmates that this professor had made Islamophobic and racist comments. So much so that our colleague lives in fear that the affair will spread on the Internet and that his reputation will be tarnished,” continues this history-geography professor for whom the current climate is reminiscent of that of Task, by Philip Roth. This novel, published in 2000 in the United States, tells the story of a classics professor nearing retirement who, accused of having made racist remarks towards his students, is forced to resign.

“I stay on alert in my class”

The profiles and intentions of the middle or high school students behind these threats are diverse. “We may have before us very politicized students or activists who defend political Islamism. The latter will look for the little beast to destabilize and bring down a teacher, explains François De Sauza. But we may also have to deal with young people who, due to lack of sufficient cultural and intellectual background, can misinterpret certain speeches”, he continues. Many, like him, say they take a grain of salt when tackling subjects deemed sensitive, or avoid certain terms which, even when explained, can be taken out of context. Added to this is the fear of being filmed without their knowledge and of seeing the video circulating on social networks. “It’s a bit of a fear of mine, that’s why I stay on alert in my class. If one of them pretends to take out their cell phone, I react immediately,” warns this teacher who works in a high school professional from Haute-Garonne. She heard about TikTok challenges: “The idea is to push your teacher to the limit and then post it on the networks,” she sighs.

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The threat can sometimes also come from parents. Agnès Andersen, general secretary of the Independance and Direction-FO union, has in mind the recent case of this mother of a student who complained on camera about the way in which a teacher at the Montpellier academy had managed a matter of harassment between students. This video, posted on X (formerly Twitter), generated numerous anonymous, hateful and threatening comments. “Users use social networks as a sounding board for their grievances and their protests,” laments the union leader, who expresses real unease among school leaders. Rarely for this profession, nearly 160 principals and headmasters gathered on March 4 at Place de la Sorbonne, in Paris, to warn of the threats that some of them are facing.

Even if, since the assassination of Samuel Paty and Dominique Bernard, alert procedures have been strengthened, concern continues. In the case of the principal of the Maurice-Ravel high school, the reaction of the institution was not long in coming: from March 1, the head of the establishment benefited from the functional protection granted by the ministry. The Paris rectorate, for its part, made a report to the public prosecutor and the national center for the fight against online hatred opened an investigation. Since then, two individuals have been identified as being behind the death threats and one of them will be tried on April 23 in Paris. The affair took an even more worrying turn on March 18, when the Collective against Islamophobia in Europe (CCIE) – reconstitution of the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), dissolved in 2021 – published the accusatory testimony of the young girl offering an additional echo to the rumor. “We understand why some teachers end up giving up by censoring themselves,” sighs Sabrina, who, since “the tension” she suffered, says she has given up organizing class outings.

* The first name has been changed.