As more details emerge, the incident reignited some of the most explosive debates in the French national lexicon: the value of freedom of expression in a country that, unlike the United States, respects hate speech the place of Islam in a nominally secular but postcolonial society in which Muslims are among the major minority groups.
French authorities identified the victim as 47-year-old Samuel Paty, who taught history and geography at a school in the northwestern suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, Paris. The attacker, shot dead by police, was identified as Abdoulakh A., an 1
“This is our fight, and it’s existential,” Macron said at the end on Friday, speaking from the crime scene.
French authorities commonly do not disclose the surname of suspects.
Police arrested four of the suspect’s relatives soon after the attack, according to Reuters. Five other people were arrested overnight, including the father of a pupil from Paty’s school, College du Bois d’Aulne, and an acquaintance of the pupil’s father known to intelligence services.
Jean-François Ricard, France’s chief anti-terrorism prosecutor, said at a press conference Saturday that a photo of the teacher’s body was found on the attacker’s cell phone. The image was posted on Twitter with a statement claiming the attack “in the name of Allah”. The post was removed and Twitter suspended the account.
The attack on Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a quiet, middle-class enclave, is the latest iteration of what has become an all-too-frequent plot in France: the public airing of Mohammed cartoons followed by deadly revenge.
Indeed, Paty had recently shown her students caricatures of Muhammad precisely because of that legacy, as part of a lecture on freedom of expression in the midst of the ongoing Charlie Hebdo trial.
Last month, the long-awaited trial opened against 14 alleged accomplices in the January 2015 attack on the offices of Europe’s most famous satirical newspaper, which was targeted by two French al-Qaeda affiliates for having previously published cartoons about Muhammad. Twelve people, including nine journalists from the newspaper, were killed.
To mark the start of the trial, Charlie Hebdo has again released a symbolic cover with cartoons of Mohammed.
Paty’s decision to show these drawings to teenage children raised eyebrows, with some Muslim parents complaining to school officials, French media reported. One of the offended parents took his controversy to social media, which is likely how the suspect – who had no known ties to the school or that parenting dispute – learned of the matter, authorities suggested.
But according to some parents, Paty had also tried to be as sensitive as possible to the offensive potential of the images she wanted to discuss.
Nordine Chaouadi, the parent of a 13-year-old from Paty’s class, told Agence France-Presse that she allowed Muslim students to leave the classroom during the discussion.
“At no time did he want to be disrespectful – that’s what my son told me,” she said.
Ricard told the press conference that the suspect was lurking outside the school on Friday afternoon and that he asked the students to point at Paty as they left. He then beheaded his victim.
The attack also comes amid Macron’s push to fight what he called “Islamist separatism” in a major speech earlier this month. In general, “reforming” Islam has been an elusive political goal of French presidents since the late 1980s, but recent events will likely bring it into a more urgent light.
Beyond Friday’s attack, the opening of the Charlie Hebdo trial saw another attack late last month: A 25-year-old Pakistani immigrant stabbed two people outside the newspaper’s former offices, who didn’t realize he was moved to a new location.
Macron declared a national remembrance on Wednesday and a demonstration in Paty’s honor is scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Paris.
In a statement, Charlie Hebdo expressed a “sense of horror and revolt after an on-duty teacher was murdered by a religious fanatic.”
“We express our deepest support for his family, loved ones and all teachers.”