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Paul Airiau, the teacher and secularism

We had promised ourselves to give news of La Grange-aux-Belles, this Parisian college whose first month of classes we had reported at the end of September against a background of Covid. We had planned to introduce Paul Airiau, one of his oldest teachers, at the end of the All Saints holidays. Without imagining for a single moment that the conflict in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, perpetrated on the eve of the holidays, would make this meeting even more enlightening.

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A specialist in religious history

“I heard the info, recorded it but it took me days to digest it. The facts are so huge ”, is moved Paul Airiau. Like the victim Samuel Paty, this almost fifty-something professor of history and geography. Like him, he is also responsible for providing moral and civic education courses, the opportunity to address freedoms of conscience and opinion.

It also happens that, outside college, Paul Airiau, associate and holder of a doctorate, has never stopped doing research or taking an interest in secularism. This specialist in religious history “crossed the subject” during the debates of the Stasi commission, in 2002-2003, before devoting a book for the 100e anniversary of the law of 1905. “In 1905, the concept, under construction, completed the Republican project. A century later, it appeared every sixty seconds in parliamentary debate. He had become a totem “, he notes.

In 2020, in any case, secularism is at the heart of the school’s response after the electroshock of Conflans. With an acceptance that always deserves to be questioned, believes Paul Airiau. “For twenty years, we have observed the assertion of a secularism less liberal than that which prevailed in 1905. Often involved in a lack of secular culture among our politicians. A lack of religious culture too, which sometimes prevents them from understanding the positioning of believing people ”, he believes. In addition, observes Paul Airiau, “Republican ideology no longer functions as a shared morality and fails to take over from the great collective narratives that disappeared at the end of the XXe century “.

A legal reading of secularism

Faced with his college students, Paul Airiau must beware of“Teach secularism as a civil religion or a state ideology”. And at the same time, “Make them understand that they must accept the rules of collective life in force in France, even if they can criticize them”. All while avoiding a challenge to the teachings, which he has never been confronted with before, unlike many colleagues. “I have sometimes been asked what evidence allows me to put forward such a fact but without really listening to the answer. Just to try to destabilize me ”, he interprets.

To get around the pitfalls, this teacher unrolls first of all “A legal reading of secularism, by exposing the choices that have led to the adoption of this device “. And rather than assert that in France “We can make fun of everything”, he prefers to list “What we can or cannot make fun of”, showing the evolution over time. “You can make fun of Buddha, but not Buddhists. Even though making fun of Buddha can hurt Buddhists. It is considered that such an injury is acceptable in the context of a democratic society ”, he decrypts.

Study caricatures from the Revolution

If he makes them study caricatures dating from the Revolution, the one who is the father of nine children says to himself, however “Moderately ready” to show his college students pictures taken from Charlie hebdo. “At their age, we still don’t always have a sense of the second degree and irony, nor a sufficiently constructed and distanced relationship with the image. “ And to remember that “Jules Ferry himself recommended never to hurt the conscience of the pupils”.

His luck may be to teach in an establishment spared from the problems of secularism, even if it presents a great social, cultural and religious diversity. “Perhaps because there is not in our recruitment pool, in the 10e district, a religious group likely to mark our adolescents to the point of leading them into abuses ”, he says. After the 2015 attacks, only one student – already subject to adult authority – refused to participate in the minute of silence. “Out of solidarity with the terrorists or out of provocation. “

A few hours away from a tribute paid in all establishments in France to Samuel Paty, Paul Airiau wants to be serene. “If by any chance an incident did occur, the word of authority would be mine, not that of the students. “


His inspiration

“There is nothing hidden that should not be discovered”

“This verse of the Gospel according to Matthew says it well, one cannot be free if one does not know the truth. This approach guides me in my profession as a historian. In addition to my part-time teaching at the college, I am carrying out today, with two other researchers, research on behalf of the Sauvé commission on pedophile crimes in the Church. We immerse ourselves in ecclesial and judicial archives, some of which will not be made public for another century. This allows us to learn a lot about the relationship of the Church to the State, to justice, to sexuality. Faced with a whole series of criminal behavior, it is important to objectify the facts. The Church is the first institution to submit, willy-nilly, to this exercise. “


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