Sunday

19th Sep 2021

France vows tough retaliation for teacher's murder

  • The scene outside the French school, where teacher Samuel Paty was brutally murdered (Photo: Emma Sofia Dedorson)

Conflans-Sainte-Honorine is usually a sleepy suburb of Paris. Since last Friday (16 October), however, there is a swarm of activity around the high school Bois d'Aulne. Police and gendarmes stand watch, international media are reporting live and in the middle of all this – the grieving residents.

"It's incredibly dramatic. My grandchildren are pupils at the school and my daughter is a teacher, so this a shock for all of us," Marie-Noëlle Nicolas says, who has come with her husband Patrick to honour the slain teacher, Samuel Paty.

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  • Mourners pay their respects in the normally sleepy suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (Photo: Emma Sofia Dedorson)

On Friday, the history and geography teacher Paty left the school to take autumn leave. Instead, he was met by an 18-year-old who stabbed and killed him, finally beheading him.

Shortly after, a photo of the horror was posted on social media with a macabre message: "To Macron, the leader of the unfaithful, now I have executed one of your hell dogs."

Police later shot the teenage perpetrator dead – a Moscow-born youth of Chechen origin living in Evreux, some 100km away. He had come to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine with the sole purpose of killing Paty.

Some weeks before, Paty had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a civics class on freedom of expression – the same cartoons that the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten were previously attacked for.

Paty is however said to have let pupils choose whether they wanted to see the cartoons or not.

A girl in his class told her father about the lesson, claiming Paty had asked the Muslim pupils to leave the classroom. Her father took the complaint to the head teacher's office and then to social media – where some Muslim groups demanded the teacher's dismissal.

The radical Islamist activist Abdelhakim Sefrioui – listed by the French security services – became particularly active in the case. He recorded a video with the girl's father in front of the school. As a result several death threats were directed at the teacher in the days leading up to the killing.

Police have since arrested at least 15 people, suspected of aiding or abetting the killing – among them the girl's father, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, and some of the perpetrator's family members.

The school, as an institution, is seen as the very heart of the French Republic. Rallies have been continuously held in squares around France to honour both Paty, the teaching profession, and freedom of speech and French secularism.

"You do not scare us. You will not divide us," prime minister Jean Castex tweeted.

Many French Muslims have taken part in the rallies – although some express fears about their own future in the country.

"We are also shocked and in mourning, we are French like everyone else", says Hadia Ahmad, immediately after participating in a moment of silence in the small town of Poissy.

She is worried this will lead to "yet another hunt on Muslims"

Imams and other French Muslim leaders have also come to Conflans Sainte Honorine to pay their respects.

Government response

On Monday (19 October), interior minister, Gérald Darmanin presented the government's first responses: 231 foreign nationals on the security services' watch list will be deported. Of those, 180 are currently in prison, the other 51 would be "arrested in the coming hours"

The Grand Mosque of Pantin, in Paris' northern outskirts, will be temporarily closed for sharing the video about the teacher.

Another 80 cases have been opened against people suspected of inciting hatred, about 50 associations will be investigated and two important Muslim NGOs will be banned – if the interior minister has his way: Baraka City – an aid organisation with activities in the Middle East and Africa, and the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF).

"We must not be naive towards the enemies of the republic," the minister tweeted.

CCIF collects evidence of Islamophobic discrimination and offers legal aid to those who consider themselves victims. Over the years, many – including former interior ministers – have accused the NGO of association with the Muslim Brotherhood and running an "Islamisation campaign".

The father of the pupil is alleged to have urged people on social media to "call CCIF".

The NGO, however, denies having shared any video against the teacher, and no evidence has emerged to show that they did.

Darmanin, in response, says he has "information" about the CCIF that justifies such a ban.

"They call the republic 'Islamophobic' but receive state subsidies. A number of different elements give reason to see them as the Republic's enemies," the minister told France Inter.

The European Network Against Racism issued a statement in defence of the CCIF, arguing the proposal reflects institutional racism within the French government.

EUobserver reached CCIF president Jawad Bashare by telephone.

"France is an oppressive state that has gradually adopted the discourse of the far-right. The CCIF rejects violence and works legally – so they chose to call it "legal jihad". They don't know how to deal with the heinous terrorist crimes, so they declare innocent Muslims as "Islamists" just to be able to say that they are doing something," Bashare says.

On Tuesday (20 October), president Emmanuel Macron promised "actions" against "Islamic extremism"

"Our fellow citizens expect actions. These actions will be stepped up. We know what needs to be done," he told reporters during a visit to a suburb.

He announced the dismantling of the pro-Hamas Cheikh Yassine Collective, founded by the now arrested Abdelhakim Sefrioui, and a crackdown on "radical online activity".

A student at the Bois d'Aulne school, who gave her name as Ms Douglas, has come with her grandfather to honour her teacher. She wipes tears from her eyes.

"It's so awful, I can't believe it. He only did his job. It is more important than ever to stand together against terror," she told EUobserver.

Author bio

Emma Sofia Dedorson is a Paris-based journalist covering politics, culture and society in France, Spain and Italy.

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