Paris (Brussels Morning) Thousands paid tribute to Samuel Paty, the history and geography teacher assassinated on Friday afternoon outside the high school close to Paris where he taught.
The perpetrator, an 18-year-old with Chechen roots who lived some 100kms away from Conflans-Saint-Honorine, the scene of the hideous crime, had the record of a petty criminal ut was not under surveillance for Islamist radicalisation.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of people, many of them teachers and politicians, paid tribute to the slain teacher not just in Paris, but in Grenoble, Marseille, Lille, Toulouse, Reims and Bordeaux. Slogans evoking solidarity within the teaching profession such as « I am a teacher (Je suis prof) » were displayed on banners and signs at gatherings across France, denouncing the heinous crime and the brutal attempt to instigate fear among teachers and academics. Hashtags were trending on social media in a show of solidarity with the French education system, invoking the principles of freedom of expression and secularism.
Debates over how to accommodate satire and mockery without infringing on freedom of expression norms are at the heart of various reactions across the political and social spectrum.
The teaching community’s own freedom of expression is a condition sine qua non for the teacher’s professional duty to explain and stimulate reflection among students. Now, there is a fear of self-censorship being instilled among the teaching profession as teachers increasingly fear being accused of and even threatened for presumed discrimination, racism and islamophobia. “I realised that teaching can kill you”, was a recurring refrain of various professors participating in this weekend’s protests.
“They won’t win”
Speaking Friday evening in Conflans-Saint-Honorine near Paris, where the attack took place, President Emmanuel Macron called it an “Islamist terrorist attack”, adding that the teacher had been murdered because he “taught freedom of expression”. “They won’t win”, he repeated, referring to obscurantism and violence. “They will not divide us. This is what they aim at, and we have to remain united”. PM Jean Castex tweeted from Place de la Republique in Paris: “You are not scaring us. We are not afraid. You will not divide us. We are France!”
For his part, Minister of Education Michel Blanquer tweeted: “It is the Republic which is under attack with the despicable murder of one of its servants. Our unity and our firmness are the only answers to the monstrosity of Islamist terrorism. We will cope.”
Charlie Hebdo tweeted: “Intolerance just reached a new threshold and seems to stop at nothing to impose terror in our country.”
Islamist agitator involved
Mr. Paty had recently shown his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in his course on the freedom of expression. According to former students, this was part of a course where the teacher stimulated discussion and reflection among his students, an approach that had never stirred anger in the past. However, the reaction spiralled out of control when his teaching method became a subject of controversy.
Eleven people have so far been arrested in connection with the investigation, including relatives of the attacker and parents of a pupil whose father had accused the teacher of discrimination and posted videos on social media asking for support to “stop him”. The arrest of another person during the weekend has caused even more controversy. Abdelhakim Sefrioui, known to intelligence services as an Islamist militant since the 1980s, has been appearing in videos claiming to act on behalf of the Council of the Imams of France and in support of the student’s family, according to France 24 reporting. While he has held a post within the Council of the Imams, the institution has distanced itself from Sefrioui and condemned the attack against the teacher.
Calls for dissolving Muslim associations
As more information emerged and calls for the dissociation of Muslim associations multiplied, the debate has grown to enormous proportions on all political, social and academic levels. Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls sided with activists calling for the dissolution of a Muslim association that works against islamophobia in France, accusing it of promoting separatism within society under the name of fighting against discrimination. In comments on BFM TV, he also attacked the leader of the France Insoumise leftist party, Jean-Luc Melanchon, a criticism of the Left’s laxity towards Islamism or “islamo-leftism” (from (islamo-gauchisme in French).
This polarising debate is also reflected on social media. Reactions included extreme viewpoints, ranging from those arguing that the professor provoked his own destiny by insulting an entire religion, to those maintaining that Muslims in France should adhere to the principle of secularism or otherwise leave for another country. In response to the polemic, the Muslim association issued a press statement rejecting the accusations as not simply wrong but utterly despicable. Minister of Interior Gérald Darmanin expressed his intention to dissolve the controversial association and other Muslim associations registered as charities such as BarakaCity, which, according to LeMonde, are viewed as “enemies of the Republic”.
In defence of freedom of expression
In the midst of this increasing polarisation over the relationship between Islam and the French Republic, calls for defending the values, liberties and the unity of the country against divisive language and acts of violence have reverberated in the mainstream media.
Underlining the ubiquity of the terrorist threat and linking it to the Covid-19 crisis, LeMonde argues that just as polemics are inevitable, these debates are essential in any democratic society, whilst the solidarity of French people of all origins, all opinions and all religions is needed now more than ever.
A Liberation editorial calls for maintaining the values of democratic tolerance and secular benevolence so that they can prevail over the most obscurantist elements within a society. “History is an evolving process, not a revealed truth” it adds, hailing freedom of expression as the right of “emancipated individuals not encouraged by archaic submissions to abusive idols”. Striking a more alarmist tone, Le Figaro rejects allowing extremists to “impose their ideology through terror”, calling for the protection French values.