2021-10-15 21:26:19 A Year Later, a Schoolteacher’s Beheading Still Haunts France

A Year Later, a Schoolteacher’s Beheading Still Haunts France

PARIS — On Friday, most schools in France observed a minute of silence in memory of Samuel Paty, a teacher whose attempt to demonstrate free speech to his students resulted in his beheading a year ago by an Islamist fanatic.

Mr. Paty was in charge of civics instruction as a history teacher. He displayed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to demonstrate the right to blasphemy, free speech, and conscience, setting in motion a swirl of lies and rumor that culminated in his beheading.

The police investigation revealed that the girl who told her father, Brahim Chnina, a false version of what happened in class, sparking the online frenzy that led to the killing, had not actually been in the class at all.

According to the girl, Mr. Paty had questioned all students about their religious beliefs, told Muslims that they could leave because “they would be shocked,” and then kicked her out of class for causing a commotion while images of a naked Prophet were shown. But the story was fabricated; she was never present.

The judicial investigation is ongoing, and there will be no trial for at least a year.

The killing in a northern Paris suburb has had long-lasting ramifications, in part because France regards schools as sacred ground, places where citizens are forged by learning the right to question everything, accept differences, believe in God or not, and place the republic’s values above those of their particular ethnic or religious identity.

A front-page banner headline in the French daily newspaper Le Monde on Thursday — “Paty: A Lasting Trauma” — captured a sense of shock that has not yet subsided. On Saturday, a Samuel Paty Square in Paris’s Fifth Arrondissement will be inaugurated.

On Friday, as Mr. Paty’s death was commemorated across the country, that sense of shock was reflected. A group of imams from Paris’ Grand Mosque laid a wreath outside the Conflans-St.-Honorine school where Mr. Paty had taught.

The tensions in French society that led to the killing, on the other hand, were visible in the fact that the Education Ministry gave teachers the option of holding a debate on the beheading if they believed a minute of silence would be disrupted by heckling.

The assassination of Mr. Paty by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, Abdouallakh Anzorov, who was shot dead by police, has heightened debate on security and immigration, radicalized politics in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, and prompted intense scrutiny of the French secular model known as lacité.

In some ways, France is approaching a Samuel Paty election, with the right dominating because the left has failed to address widespread security concerns. According to an April poll conducted by the Journal du Dimanche, 86 percent of French people consider security to be a major electoral issue, up from 60 percent a year ago.

These are the concerns that have fueled the rise of an insurgent far-right TV pundit and polemicist, Éric Zemmour, who has gained popularity with his anti-immigrant rhetoric despite the fact that he is not yet a declared candidate.

David Feutry, a history teacher at a high school in Dreux, about 50 miles west of Paris, said that he “feels a constant mission of memory, to explain why we can criticize religion, why freedom of conscience is important, and why lacité matters” since Mr. Paty’s death.

In theory, France is a nondiscriminatory society in which the state maintains strict religious neutrality. It is a nation that, in its now-questioned universalist self-image, reconciles religious and ethnic differences in a shared commitment to the rights and responsibilities of French citizenship.

That was the rudimentary model Mr. Paty attempted to present to his class, at the cost of his life.

However, some French Muslims and other immigrants see this ostensibly colorblind blueprint for a society of liberty, fraternity, and equality as nothing more than a ruse to conceal widespread discrimination.

Mr. Feutry acknowledged French society’s problems. Working in a Muslim-majority town where the far-right National Front, now known as the National Rally, won some of its first electoral victories, he said he felt a special need to explain to Muslim students why, for example, blasphemy is not a crime in France.

“We have to admit there’s a problem,” he said. “Some of these people were abandoned by the republic.” Should we be surprised that they turned to their traditions and Islam after being dumped in separate urban areas?”

He proposed that understanding be built. He believes that discussing his grandfather’s role on the French side in the Algerian war, as well as the role of his Muslim students’ forefathers in the National Liberation Front, can be beneficial in bringing out suppressed, divisive history.

“Paty was a victim, not a hero,” Mr. Feutry said. “My students must understand the dangers of social media and rumor.”

The investigation into the killing has revealed that Mr. Chnina disseminated his daughter’s false account of what Mr. Paty had done via videos and Facebook. It was understandably false because she wasn’t present and made up her own story. This did not stop an Islamist radical named Abdelhakim Sefrioui from creating a YouTube video based on Mr. Chnina’s work and naming Mr. Paty’s school. The online storm grew, and when Mr. Anzorov, the young Chechen, became aware of it, he went out and bought a knife.

Because there are several minors involved, and because so much of the case involves online invective fueled by rumor, the investigation has been particularly difficult.

Emmanuel Menetrey, a history teacher at a school near Dijon in eastern France, said he was struck with “stupor” when he learned about the murder a year ago. “It never occurred to me that teaching in France could put one’s life in danger,” he said.

“Because the French people are deeply attached to their schools, this was a point of rupture for all teachers and the nation,” he explained. “Lacité is not the answer to everything, and we must be aware of inequalities and prejudices, but it should remain the goal we strive for.”

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

Mr. Paty died as a result of “shameless lies spread on social media,” according to Mr. Menetrey.

This year, the Senate passed a Samuel Paty amendment that makes it a crime punishable by three years in prison to spread personal information that puts someone’s life in danger. It was approved despite concerns that it would jeopardize press freedom.

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A Year Later, a Schoolteacher’s Beheading Still Haunts France