French President Emmanuel Macron paid a soaring tribute to slain history teacher Samuel Paty during a national commemoration Wednesday at Paris’ Sorbonne University, describing him as incarnating values of tolerance and learning, and describing in bleak terms the threat of radical Islam.
“We will not renounce cartoons,” said Macron, in reference to cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that Paty used in a class on secular values — and which authorities said led to his beheading by an Islamist terrorist.
“Samuel Paty was killed because the Islamists want our future,” the president said, adding, "they will never have it."
The ceremony, marked by a moment of silence and the posthumous bestowal on Paty of France’s highest Legion of Honor award, capped an outpouring of grief and anger over Paty’s death near the Paris-area school where he worked.
Paty’s death has shaken the nation partly for its sheer brutality, but also because it attacked what many French consider sacrosanct — the nation’s public schools as hubs of critical thinking and free expression, along with its staunch creed of laicité, or secularism.
Yet, along with flowers, marches and tributes — including mass rallies in major cities that have gathered tens of thousands — the country is witnessing a fractured response to its latest terrorist attack, which mixes calls for war against Islamist extremism with fears the country may be taking its secular ethos too far.
“There is a political culture that has problems with Islam, and that is laicité,” said sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, a specialist on radical Islam. “And laicité is a major problem.”
Prophet Muhammad cartoons
Paty was killed going home from school last Friday in apparent retaliation for showing the controversial cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad to his students, during a class on free expression. Authorities said seven people, including two minors, would appear before an anti-terrorism judge.
At a press conference Wednesday, anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Ricard said Paty’s killer, Chechen immigrant Abdullakh Anzorov, 18, gave students at Paty’s school, in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, money in exchange for identifying the teacher.
Two accepted, and Anzorov followed and killed Paty after class, posting his gruesome act on social media. Shortly after, police shot dead Anzorov, an ethnic Chechen who had received asylum and later resident status in France.
The assailant apparently was motivated by a social media campaign against the teacher for showing the controversial cartoons. The campaign had been launched by a disgruntled parent, although the man's daughter apparently never attended the free-expression class.
Both the parent and an alleged Islamist militant, who helped spread the social media campaign against Paty, are among those appearing before an anti-terror judge. Also appearing are the two students, aged 14 and 15, who told investigators Anzorov said he intended to humiliate and hit Paty, but not kill him.
French authorities have riposted swiftly to the killing, announcing the expulsion of more than 250 alleged Islamist radicals of foreign origin. They also launched dozens of raids on suspect groups this week, shuttering one mosque and vowing to dissolve several organizations allegedly linked to extremism.
Among them is the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, or CCIF, an NGO that receives state funding, but which critics say is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier this week, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin denounced it as an “enemy of the republic,” accusing it of backing the disgruntled father’s fatwa or ruling against Paty — a claim CCIF head Jawad Bachare rejects.
“The government has not been able to protect its population and it needs someone to blame — and it’s us,” Bachare said in a phone interview, describing the CCIF as apolitical and nonreligious.
The father had approached the CCIF for legal support, he added, but the group had advised him to immediately remove his social media postings while it investigated his complaints.
Paty’s killing was the second terrorist incident here in less than a month. An earlier stabbing in Paris that severely wounded two people also was triggered by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Together with an ongoing trial over the 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper, they are again putting in the spotlight France’s Muslim community, which is Western Europe’s largest.
Prominent Muslim leaders have rushed to denounce the attacks, even as they worry Muslims may be unfairly stigmatized.
"This is the moment, and we support our president and our government and the minister of the interior to really go and fight Islamism, to really go and look for them in their cellars, on their websites, where they hide,” said Paris-area Imam Hassen Chalghoumi during a ceremony commemorating Paty.
Secularism at stake
Members of France’s far right and several center-right leaders say the government has not gone far enough.
"Since terrorism is an act of war, it needs wartime legislation” against radical Islam, said far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen, demanding broader changes, including further curbs on immigration.
Macron’s centrist government plans to unveil so-called anti-separatism legislation in early December, which is expected to largely focus on radical Islam.
“Laicité is the cement of a united France,” Macron said, announcing the bill last month.
But others suggest laicité — or at least the official interpretation of it — is part of the problem. From banning Muslim burkinis on beaches to religious symbols in schools, it is feeding divisions, they warn, and paradoxically risks pushing some conservative Muslims to extremism.
Khosrokhavar describes conducting multiple interviews with middle-class French Muslim men, many of whom said they were not particularly religious.
“The majority are deeply alienated, because they are targeted by this laicité, which becomes a symbol of neocolonial rule and a denial of their dignity,” he said.
Teachers on the line
Paty’s death also has shaken the country’s educational establishment. In rallies and commemorations, teachers have turned out en masse, brandishing banners defending free expression. In interviews, they describe tensions teaching laicité to an increasingly diverse student body, especially those of Muslim origin.
“There is a penetration of a religiosity that increasingly structures students and feeds a radical vision,” Iannis Roder, a history teacher in the heavily immigrant Seine-Saint-Denis region outside Paris, told French radio. “It manifests itself in really basic things, like some students refusing to listen to music during Ramadan.”
Another Seine-Saint-Denis high school teacher told VOA that teaching tolerance takes time.
“Tackling free expression by showing images of the Prophet [Muhammad] — you have to weigh the consequences,” said the teacher, who declined to be identified as she had not received authorization from her school to speak to the media.
Instead, she opts for a less confrontational approach, taking her mostly Muslim students on school outings to Holocaust memorials and other sites — and drawing links with their own backgrounds. Slowly, she said, the lessons sink in.
“The old students return to coach the youngsters,” she said. “It makes a really big difference.”