A year later, the beheading of a teacher still haunts France

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PARIS – Most schools in France observed a minute of silence on Friday in memory of Samuel Paty, a teacher whose attempt to illustrate freedom of expression to his students led to his beheading a year ago by a fanatic Islamist.

As a history teacher, Mr. Paty was responsible for teaching civics. To illustrate the right to blasphemy, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, he showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, triggering a whirlwind of lies and rumors that ended in his beheading.

The police investigation revealed that the girl who told her father, Brahim Chnina, a false version of what happened in the classroom and which caused the online frenzy that led to the murder was not of the everything in the classroom.

The girl told police Mr. Paty questioned all students about their religious allegiance, told Muslims they could leave because “they would be shocked,” then ordered her out of the classroom. for causing a ruckus while pictures of a naked prophet were shown. But the story, it appeared in March, was made up; she was never there.

The judicial investigation is continuing and no trial is expected for at least a year.

The murder in a northern suburb of Paris had lasting effects, in part because France views school as sacred ground, places where citizens forge themselves by learning the right to question everything, to accept differences, to believe in God or not, and to place the values ​​of the republic above those of their particular ethnic or religious identity.

A headline on the front page Thursday in the French daily Le Monde – “Paty: a lasting trauma” – captured a sense of shock that has not entirely subsided. A Samuel Paty square in the fifth arrondissement of Paris will be inaugurated on Saturday.

That sense of shock was reflected on Friday when Mr. Paty’s death was commemorated across the country. A group of imams from the Great Mosque of Paris laid a wreath in front of the school where Mr. Paty had taught in Conflans-Saint-Honorine.

The tensions in French society that led to the murder were, however, evident in the fact that the Ministry of Education gave teachers the opportunity to hold a debate on the beheading if they thought a minute’s silence would be interrupted. by heckling.

The murder of Mr Paty by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee Abdouallakh Anzorov, shot dead by the police, has intensified the debate on security and immigration, radicalized politics in the run-up to the presidential election of the year forthcoming and prompted scrutiny of the French secular model known as secularism.

In some ways, France is approaching an election of Samuel Paty, dominated by the right because the left has found no response to overwhelming security concerns. An opinion poll published in April by the Journal du Dimanche indicated that 86% of French people see security as a major electoral issue, up from 60% a year earlier.

It is these fears that have gained popularity for a television expert and insurgent far-right polemicist, Eric Zemmour, with his anti-immigrant speech, even though he is not yet a declared candidate.

David Feutry, a history teacher at a high school in Dreux, about 80 kilometers west of Paris, said that since the murder of Mr. Paty, he “feels a constant remembrance mission, to explain why we can criticize religion, why freedom of conscience is important and why secularism is important.

France is in theory a non-discriminatory society where the state respects strict religious neutrality. It is a nation that, in its now-questioned universalist image of itself, dissolves differences of faith and ethnicity in a shared commitment to the rights and responsibilities of French citizenship.

It was the secular model that Mr. Paty was trying to present to his class, paying with his life.

But some French Muslims and other immigrants see in this allegedly color-blind project of a society of freedom, fraternity and equality only an exercise in hypocrisy that masks widespread discrimination.

Mr. Feutry recognized the problems of French society. Working in a city with a large Muslim population, where the far-right National Front, now known as the National Rally, won some of its early electoral victories, he said he felt a particular need to explain to Muslim students why, for example, blasphemy is not a crime in France.

“We have to recognize that there is a problem,” he said. “The republic has abandoned some of these people. If they were thrown into separate urban areas, should we be surprised that they turned to their traditions and Islam? “

Understanding had to be built, he suggested. He finds that talking about his grandfather’s role on the French side in the Algerian war and the role of the ancestors of his Muslim students in the National Liberation Front can be helpful in bringing out a repressed and conflicting story.

“Paty was not a hero; he was a victim, ”Feutry said. “My students need to understand how dangerous social media and rumors can be. “

The murder investigation revealed that Mr. Chnina, through videos and Facebook, had spread his daughter’s false account of what Mr. Paty had done. This was naturally wrong because she was not there and made up her version. This did not stop a radical Islamist, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, from making a YouTube video based on the work of Mr. Chnina which named Mr. Paty’s school. The online storm has amplified – and Mr. Anzorov, the young Chechen, alerted, decided to buy a knife.

Because several minors are involved, and because much of the case involves rumor-intensified online abuse, the investigation has proven to be particularly complex.

Emmanuel Menetrey, a history teacher at a school near Dijon, in eastern France, said he was “stunned” when he learned of the murder a year ago. “That teaching in France was to risk your life, had never occurred to me,” he says.

“The French are very attached to their schools, so it was a breaking point, for all teachers and for the nation,” he said. “Secularism is not the answer to everything, and we must be aware of inequalities and prejudices, but this must always be the goal we are trying to achieve. “

Mr. Menetrey, in a quiet rural school, observed a minute of silence with all the students. Mr. Feutry, in the more busy environment of Dreux, chose to engage in a debate with his class.

Mr. Paty, Mr. Menetrey said, had died because of “blatant lies spread on social media.”

An amendment by Samuel Paty, adopted by the Senate this year, makes it an offense punishable by three years in prison to disseminate personal information that puts a person’s life in danger. It was adopted despite fears that it posed a threat to press freedom.


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