by Elizabeth Yang ’22
Published Nov. 11th, 2020
On October 16th, just days after French President Emmanuel Macron expressed concerns of Islamist extremism, France was stunned by a horrific incident: a French middle school history teacher was beheaded.
According to police reports, 47-year-old Samuel Paty showed controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Mohammed during a civics lesson at College du Bois d’Aulne, a middle school located in the suburbs of Paris. His lesson incited furious reactions as depictions of the prophet are prohibited by the Muslim faith: in addition to receiving a direct parental complaint, Paty was faced with several death threats. 18-year-old Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, a Moscow-born Chechan refugee, attacked Paty near the school and was fatally shot by police after being unresponsive to commands to disarm himself.
That day, French anti-terror prosecutor Jean-François Ricard received news that Anzorov received aid in tracking down his victim. Over the course of the next few days, police questioned up to sixteen people, eventually releasing nine detainees, some of whom were Anzorov’s family members. Among those charged included a student paid by Anzorov to identify the history teacher and a school parent who had posted a video accusing Paty of blasphemously depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
Two days later, thousands gathered together around the Place de la République in Paris to decry violence and celebrate freedom of speech.
This gruesome attack has revived France’s horror of the country’s 2015 shooting in the Charlie Hebdo offices, a terrorist attack led by two Muslim brothers against the satirical newspaper company that left seventeen dead. Since then, the deep divisions between freedom of speech and religious identity have only intensified.
French President Macron called Paty’s decapitation an “Islamic terrorist attack” and urged the nation to continue to stand together against extremism, but this national unity has been hiding the emerging dissent of the country’s take on freedom of speech and secularism.
State secularism, comparable in importance to France’s post-revolutionary motto, “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” is central to the country’s identity. Over the past five years, increasing acts of violence have instilled fear in the country’s values as they continued to clash with religious communities. Citizens hope that this tragedy will push the government to recognize the urgency of addressing France’s secular values.
In the presence of Paty’s family, President Macron held a ceremony in La Sorbonne University and posthumously awarded him the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honor, for representing the country’s secular, democratic values. “We have all anchored in our hearts the memory of a teacher who changed the course of our lives… Samuel Paty was one of them,” Macron said.