France convulsed by beheading of teacher Samuel Paty one year on

The country has endured 21 jihadist attacks since 2015, with 18 such attacks foiled

The family of the murdered history and geography teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee one year ago, will on Saturday unveil a plaque to his memory at the ministry of education, call on President Emmanuel Macron and attend the inauguration of the square named after him in front of the Sorbonne.

France has endured 21 jihadist attacks since January 2015. A further 18 attacks have been foiled. Though many claimed greater numbers of victims, the country remains profoundly shocked by the decapitation of Paty, the 47-year-old father of a five-year-old boy.

Demoralised teachers say they exercise self-censorship and receive insufficient support from the administration. Some criticised the government for not setting a specific time for a minute of silence, and for making the commemoration of Paty’s killing optional in French schools on Friday.

Public figures such as the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter demand a strengthening of laicité or state-enforced secularism. Polls show that younger people are more tolerant of religious symbolism and expressions of belief, a phenomenon attributed to "woke culture" imported from the US.

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The series of events culminating in Paty’s murder and the shooting dead of his assassin, Abdouallakh Anzorov, by police, began on October 5th, 2020, when Paty showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to a civics class about tolerance and secularism. The teacher said Muslim students might find the cartoons offensive and were free to leave the classroom or hide their faces.

A 14-year-old Muslim girl, identified in press reports as Z Chnina, had been suspended from the collège du Bois-d'Aulne in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, for absenteeism and disruptive behaviour. To divert attention from her punishment, she lied to her father, Brahim Chnina, claiming that Paty had ordered Muslim students to leave.

Government watchlist

The angry father posted a video on social media in which he named Paty and the school. He also contacted Abdelhakim Sefrioui, who appears on a government watchlist for his support of the Palestinian party Hamas. Sefrioui also made a video denouncing what was erroneously perceived as discrimination against Muslims.

In June, investigators found the missing link between the videos and Anzorav, a 33-year-old French convert to Islam identified as Priscilla M, married to an Islamist who is serving a prison sentence for plotting a foiled attack in Marseille. She said her Twitter account, “Cicatrice sucrée” (sugary scar) alluded to the pain of her husband’s imprisonment and the sweetness of their relationship.

Anzorav’s immigrant family in Normandy were so alarmed by his radicalisation that they went through his phone while he slept at night to see find out what websites he visited and who his contacts were. But they did not notify authorities.

Priscilla M posted Chnina’s video on her Twitter account, where it was seen by Anzorav. He sent her a message asking if Paty had been punished for his treatment of Muslim students. No, she replied on October 13th. “Things are very clear . . . They really want to eradicate faith from the heart of people”. Anzorav agreed and replied: “They won’t succeed, if they only knew.”

After stabbing and beheading Paty, Anzorav sent Priscilla M his claim of responsibility, in which he said, “I executed a dog from hell”, with a photograph of the severed head. She immediately shut down her Twitter account.

One year later, Chnina and Sefrioui are in prison, charged with being accessories to Paty’s murder. Chnina told the investigating magistrate that he regrets having posted Paty’s name and the location of the school on the internet. He said his life has lost all meaning. “I did something really stupid. I have only myself to blame. I am responsible for everything.”

Buy a knife

Proceedings have been launched against Priscilla M and 13 other people under formal investigation for “complicity in a terrorist act” or for “associating with terrorist criminals”. They include a Chechen and a Franco-Tunisian who went with Anzorov to buy a knife and two BB guns that shoot lead pellets, one of which was found in Paty’s body. The Franco-Tunisian drove Anzorov from Normandy to the school in the Yvelines department west of Paris.

Five students are among those under investigation. Anzorav promised them €300 if they would point out Paty when he left school after classes.

Paty’s sister Gaëlle, a former teacher who now runs a bookshop, this week gave the first interview by a family member, to La Croix newspaper. She said Paty had told their mother, a retired teacher, that he was “not sure how to present things’’ in his civics class. “He was looking for the best way to make his students reflect.”

Gaelle Paty said she would not have shown the cartoons "because I am not very courageous. I wouldn't have dared risk head-on confrontation with certain students. Samuel did it because he was a purist."