France honours 'quiet hero' teacher killed over Prophet Muhammad cartoon a year ago

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Locals pay tribute to Samuel Paty outside the school where he taught, in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, on 20 October 2020.
Locals pay tribute to Samuel Paty outside the school where he taught, in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, on 20 October 2020.
PHOTO: Siegfried Modola/Getty Images
  • Samuel Paty, the teacher beheaded one year ago after showing students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, will be honoured in France.
  • Ceremonies will include the unveiling of a monument of an open book, as well as a square in Paris renamed in his honour.
  • President Emmanuel Macron hailed Paty as a "quiet hero" of the French republic, which values free speech and secularism.

Paris – A year after the brutal murder of a French teacher, beheaded for showing his students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, schools are struggling with how to teach core French values without inflaming tensions with young Muslims.

Samuel Paty, who was 47, was killed after leaving the middle school where he taught history and geography in the tranquil Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on the evening of 16 October 2020.

His killer, 18-year-old Chechen refugee Abdullakh Anzorov, who had been living in France for years, claimed the attack as revenge for Paty showing his class the Muhammad cartoons in a lesson on free speech.

On Saturday, several ceremonies will be held in memory of the popular teacher hailed by President Emmanuel Macron as a "quiet hero" of the French republic.

In Conflans, the ceremonies will include the unveiling of a monument of an open book, while in Paris a square opposite the prestigious Sorbonne university will be renamed in his honour.

Flowers in front of Samuel Paty's school
Flowers placed in front of the school where murdered school teacher Samuel Paty taught.

Paty's violent death sent shockwaves through France, where it was seen as an attack on the core values drilled by teachers into generations of schoolchildren, including the separation of church and state and the right to blaspheme.

For sociologist Michel Wieviorka, it was an attack on the idea, long cherished by the French, "that children leave their differences at the door when they enter school".

Students are expected to embark on the path to "modernity, progress, civilisation and knowledge" in the classroom, he added.

In scenes reminiscent of the rallies held after the 2015 killing of a group of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists – whose drawings Paty showed his class – thousands of people marched across France in defence of free speech after the teacher was killed.

'I weigh every word'

At least three towns went on to name schools after Paty, including the multi-ethnic eastern Paris suburb of Valenton.

Despite the show of defiance, some teachers say Paty's murder has caused them to exercise a form of self-censorship.

A teacher in a town near Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, who did not want to be named, told AFP she "holds back more" now when discussing religion with her class.

In an interview with Liberation newspaper, one of Paty's colleagues said she too had grown more guarded.

"I weigh every word I say now," the woman, who was also not named for security reasons, told the paper.

She said she feared that her remarks could be "misinterpreted by the students and widely shared (outside the school), as happened with Samuel".

'Lost' neighbourhoods

Paty's decision to show students aged 14-15 two cartoons of Muhammad, one featuring the prophet naked on all fours, unleashed a vicious online smear campaign started by the father of a student who falsely claimed that Paty had asked Muslims to leave the classroom.

The campaign caught the attention of Normandy-based extremist Anzorov, who traced Paty to his school and paid some of his students to point him out as he was walking home from work.

Anzarov was himself shot dead later that day by police.

The attack came in the midst of a heated debate over Macron's campaign against what he called "Islamist separatism" in immigrant communities, where conservative Muslims are accused of rejecting secularism, free speech and other values taught in school.

Macron was accused by leftist critics at the time of stigmatising Europe's biggest Muslim community and pandering to the far-right ahead of 2022 elections.

But on the right, voters and politicians have long been urging tougher action to restore the state's authority in what a group of teachers described in a 2015 book as the "lost territories of the Republic".

They include controversial media pundit Eric Zemmour, a possible candidate for the presidency in next year's vote, who has declared Paty's murder proof that France is in a "civil war" with radical Islamists.

'The old French model'

The anti-Islam commentator, whom polls show closing in on Marine Le Pen for the leadership of the far-right, stresses the need for immigrants to assimilate into French society.

For Wieviorka, however, the notion that newcomers should renounce the customs and culture of their countries of origin is not tenable.

"That's the old French model which no longer really works," he said.

He contrasted the tough rhetoric from ministers on secularism with the reality in schools, where teachers are being challenged daily by students about laws protecting the right to mock people's faith, which many Muslims see as chiefly targeting Islam.

"They (the teachers) are not prepared for that," he said.

To help them provide answers, the education ministry has developed a series of educational tools, including a "republican guide" sent to each school and a series of posters explaining secularism.

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