The Place de la République was filled on Sunday for a subdued tribute to Samuel Paty, the 47-year-old schoolteacher beheaded on Friday in the Parisian suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. All of them have come to show their horror at the murder of Paty, whose only “crime” was showing cartoons of Muhammad during a lesson on freedom of speech.
Many people have signs with #jesuissamuel or #jesuisprof, a reference to the slogan #jesuischarlie after the attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Others have brought the special Charlie Hebdo issue that came out in September at the start of the trial about that attack, and in which the cartoons were again printed. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets throughout France, despite the corona crisis.
On the Place de la République, Marie and her husband are standing with a sign that reads “I teach freedom of speech(I teach about freedom of speech). Both are teachers in Noisy-le-Grand in the northern suburbs of Paris. What happened to Samuel Paty could have happened to them. “What Samuel did is a mandatory part of the curriculum,” says Marie, refusing to give her full name. “Whether you show the cartoons or not is the choice of every teacher. I’ve done it myself. That always results in a discussion that is sometimes quite violent. ”
Perpetrator with Chechen roots
How that discussion turned into the murder of Paty is a question the court will have to answer in the coming days. But there is also the question of whether enough has been done to prevent this, and how teachers all over France should soon be teaching again.
There is little doubt as to why Paty was murdered. The perpetrator has been identified as 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Russian of Chechen descent who had been granted asylum in France with his family. Just before he was shot by the police, he posted a photo of Paty’s corpse on Twitter. In doing so, he called President Macron “the leader of the unbelievers” and that he “executed one of his dogs who dared to insult the prophet.”
Above all, the research must demonstrate how things could have come to this. Because Anzorov had no connection whatsoever with the college where Paty taught; he lived eighty kilometers away, in Evreux. Eleven people have been arrested, in addition to the immediate family of the perpetrator, the father of a child at Paty’s school, who had issued an appeal to demand his resignation, and a radical preacher who helped spread this call.
Where the father’s video gave the impression that Paty was an extremist who wanted to provoke Muslim children in his class, a different picture has surfaced in the media. Paty’s students and colleagues describe him as a loved and passionate teacher who values freedom of expression. The lesson he gave to the fourth year on October 5 and 6 – with students aged thirteen and fourteen – he had taught in the same way for years. Before showing the cartoons, he gave the students who wished the opportunity to look away or leave the classroom.
One teenage girl from the group gets angry and tells her father what happened. He starts writing angry messages on Facebook. He makes a video in which he calls Paty a criminal and calls on other parents to demand his dismissal. According to an internal note from the school, leaked to the French media, “there is a lively polemic among some parents of Islamic belief who consider what happened to be offensive.”
Then Abdelhakim Sefroui comes into the picture. Sefroui, an imam of Moroccan descent who sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood, spreads his own video warning that “if we let this pass, a new Srebrenica is not far away”. While the parents meanwhile settle their conflict with school, Paty’s name and other details end up on social media and probably end up with the perpetrator.
The murder comes at a time when the debate in France about the role of Islam in society is raging. On October 2, Macron gave a speech about what he calls “Islamist separatism” and what he wants to do against it. That was his response to criticism from the right that he was too weak against Islamism, a term that covers both political Islam and radical Islam. Education was often discussed. For example, Macron wants to reduce compulsory schooling to three years to prevent parents from withdrawing their children from official education.
Macron rushed past
But Macron is in danger of being outrun by his right-wing opponents. The Senate, where right-wing parties are in the majority, is considering a bill on Monday that aims to rewrite the constitution to reflect that “ no individual, no group, can rely on origin or religion to get out of the general rules ”.
Macron has announced that there will be a national commemoration for Paty on Wednesday. The college where he taught may bear his name. In the Place de la République, Marie and her husband are not impressed. She herself does not intend to avoid the discussion either. “There is a France before and a France after the murder of Samuel Paty,” she says. “From now on, Samuel’s death will be part of every lesson in France about freedom of expression.”
Also read: Teacher beheaded in Paris after class with cartoon, perpetrator killed
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next on October 19, 2020
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