Tide of outrage in France follows beheading of teacher

Protests follow murder of teacher by 18-year-old unconnected to victim or school

French president Emmanuel Macron has said that a history teacher, who was killed near the school where he taught in a Paris suburb, was the victim of an Islamic terrorist attack. Video: Reuters

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Confused, sometimes conflicting messages have emerged from the tide of outrage at the murder of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty.

Paty was stabbed dead and beheaded by a Chechen immigrant outside the Collège du Bois d’Aulne in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris, on Friday.

When he visited the scene of the crime on Friday night, President Emmanuel Macron pleaded for national unity, saying “they will not divide us”, and using the Spanish civil war slogan, “They will not pass.”

But politicians from the conservative Les Républicains and the far-right Rassemblement National accused Macron of being lax in his response to immigration and extremist violence.

Others blamed the left for what they said was its conciliatory attitude towards Islamist fundamentalism. Some evoked a sense of weariness or déja-vu.

French Muslim leaders expressed horror at the beheading and proclaimed support for freedom of speech. At the same time, they were afraid the country’s Muslim community would be unjustly held responsible.

Abdoullakh Abouyezidevitch Anzonov, the 18-year-old assassin, was born to Chechen parents in Moscow. The family emigrated to France when he was six. He had no police record but neighbours said he and five younger brothers were troublemakers in the housing project where they lived.

Anzonov had no connection to the school and did not know his victim. The friend who drove him 90km from his home in Evreux to the school in Conflans said he did not know what Anzonov was planning. Anzonov waited outside the school and politely asked several students to identify Paty when classes were let out.

The Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday published the cartoon from Charlie Hebdo magazine that allegedly upset a 13-year-old girl in Paty’s class. It shows a naked, bearded man wearing a skullcap, on all fours, with his posterior in the air and genitals exposed. The cartoon was signed Coco, the nom de plume of a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who survived the January 2015 attack in which 12 people were killed.

The girl’s father, identified as Brahim C, is one of 11 people in custody in connection with Paty’s murder. The others are Anzonov’s mother, father, grandfather and uncle, one of the killer’s five younger brothers, two persons who were present at the scene of the crime and whose role is uncertain, two acquaintances of Anzonov and Abdelhakim Sefrioui, the self-described “leader of imams” in France.

Security list

Sefrioui’s name has figured on the S (for security) list of suspected Islamist extremists for more than a decade, but he was seen as an agitator rather than a terrorist. He founded the Sheikh Yassin group, named after the Palestinian Hamas leader who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.

A report by the domestic intelligence agency SCRT dated October 12th recounts the lead-up to Paty’s murder, beginning on October 5th when the teacher showed two cartoons from Charlie Hebdo to a class on freedom of speech. The SCRT’s report erroneously concluded that talks between the school principal and the families had calmed the situation.

Paty had asked students who might be offended by the cartoons to leave the classroom. The following day, the mother of a student called the principal in tears, saying her daughter had been forced to wait in the corridor because she was a Muslim. The principal asked Paty to apologise for having been “clumsy”, which he did.

But on October 7th, the principal received an email complaining of “Islamophobia” from Brahim C, who published a video “appeal for mobilisation” against Paty the same day on Facebook, the SCRT reported.

Brahim C published a second video naming Paty and giving the address of the school. He denounced Paty’s “sacrilege” in a meeting with the principal, to which he was accompanied by Sefrioui. The two men said Muslim children had been psychologically damaged by the incident.

Brahim C’s half-sister joined the Islamic State terror group in Syria in 2014, according to Le Parisien newspaper. His daughter filed a complaint against Paty at the local police commissariat for showing a “pornographic image”, without specifying it was a cartoon. The slain teacher told police that the girl left the classroom and did not see the cartoon.

On October 12th, Sefrioui interviewed Brahim C’s daughter in a video titled “Islam and the prophet insulted in a public school”, in which he accused Macron of inciting hatred against Muslims. The same day, Paty filed a suit for defamation.

Paty’s murder has focused attention on the dangers of social media. Numerous children at the school saw the photograph of their teacher’s decapitated head, which was tweeted by the killer or an accomplice and retransmitted on a school Snapchat group.

Marlène Schiappa, a secretary of state at the interior ministry, has summoned the French branches of Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat to a meeting on Tuesday.

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