French teachers stage walkout after Muslim students ‘offended’ over Renaissance painting spark safety concerns

French teachers concerned for their safety amid a spate of deadly attacks by Islamic extremists staged a walkout at their Paris-area school Monday after Muslim students complained they were “offended” by a 17th century nude Renaissance painting shown in class and accused their instructor of “Islamophobia.” 

France Education Minister Gabriel Attal made an in-person visit Monday to the Jacques-Cartier school in Issou to respond to the tension days after the painting, “Diana and Actaeon,” by the Italian painter Giuseppe Cesari, was shown in class Thursday. 

The painting, held by the Louvre Museum in Paris, depicts a Greek mythology scene from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which the hunter Actaeon bursts into an area where the goddess Diana and her nymphs are bathing in the nude. 

“Some students averted their gaze, felt offended, said they were shocked,” Sophie Venetitay, a representative from the Snes-FSU teachers union, explained to Agence France-Presse (AFP), adding “some also alleged the teacher made racist comments.”

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A parent reportedly wrote the school administration, threatening to file a complaint, claiming his son was prevented from engaging in class discussion objecting to the painting. 

The teachers saw that email as the “final straw” after having already complained of working in a “very degraded climate” while receiving a “lack of support” from management despite “several alerts,” Venetitay said. In an email to school administration Friday, teachers warned they would stay out of their classrooms this week, describing a “palpable discomfort,” and citing “an increase in cases of violence,” according to France 24. 

On Monday, Attal assured that students responsible for making complaints against the teacher over the painting would face disciplinary action, and a team would be deployed to the school to ensure pupils adhere to the “values of the republic.”

France raised its terror alert to the highest level in October amid the Israel-Hamas war after a man of Chechen origin, identified by prosecutors as Mohammed M, and suspected of Islamic radicalization, stabbed teacher Dominique Bernard to death at his former high school and wounded three other people in the northern city of Arras. 

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Last week, six teenagers were convicted in Paris for their roles in the 2020 beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed published by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo during a classroom discussion on freedom of expression and secularism. 

The publication of the cartoon had triggered a deadly extremist massacre in the Charlie Hebdo newsroom in 2015. 

Paty was savagely murdered outside his Paris-area school by Abdoullakh Anzorov, a young Chechen who had become radicalized. Anzorov was killed by police

Authorities say one of the teens admitted to lying to her father that Paty had asked Muslim students to leave the classroom before he showed the class the cartoons and said the teacher punished her for accusing him of anti-Muslim sentiment. In fact, she was not in the classroom that day. Other defendants were accused of helping to identify Paty to Anzorov.

The girl’s father shared the lies in an online video that called for mobilization against the teacher. Now incarcerated, her father and a radical Islamic activist who helped disseminate virulent messages against Paty are among eight adults who will face a separate trial for adults suspected of involvement in the killing late next year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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