PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute on Wednesday to a French history teacher beheaded by an Islamist radical as a “quiet hero” dedicated to instilling the democratic values of the French Republic in his pupils.
Samuel Paty’s attacker, a teenager of Chechen origin, had wanted to avenge the teacher’s use of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a class on freedom of expression for 13-year-olds. Muslims see any depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous.
In a nationally televised memorial service presided over by Macron, Paty’s coffin was carried into the courtyard of Sorbonne university in Paris to the soundtrack of the U2 song “One”. Atop the casket lay Paty’s Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration that was awarded posthumously to the slain teacher.
“He was killed precisely because he incarnated the Republic,” a visibly emotional Macron said. “He was killed because the Islamists want our future. They know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it.”
Abdullakh Anzorov decapitated Paty with a large knife on a street in a middle-class Paris suburb in broad daylight last Friday in a killing officials called an attack on French values. Police shot dead the 18-year-old soon afterwards.
The murder has convulsed France, carrying echoes of the Islamist attack in 2015 on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, after it published cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.
In an act of solidarity, the Occitanie regional authorities projected a series of Charlie Hebdo’s past political and religious cartoons, including those of the Prophet Mohammad, onto public buildings in the cities of Toulouse and Montpellier.
Macron said: “Samuel Paty on Friday became the face of the Republic, of our desire to break the will of the terrorists … and to live as a community of free citizens in our country.”
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said Anzorov had paid pupils at the College Bois d’Aulne to identify his victim, knowing only his name and the school where he taught after a parent launched a campaign against Paty on social media.
“This identification was only possible with the help of students from the school. They identified him in exchange for payment,” Jean-Francois Ricard told a news conference.
Ricard said the killer had arrived at the school early on Friday afternoon and offered students between 300 and 350 euros ($350 to $415), telling them he wanted to force an apology from Paty but also to “humiliate and hit him”.
Two students aged 14 and 15 were among seven people detained for alleged complicity to murder in a terrorist endeavour, or association with a terrorist. They were handed over to a judge to determine whether they should be placed under investigation – at which point they would be treated as formal suspects.
Ricard also confirmed that Anzorov had made contact with the school parent who posted videos online accusing Paty of stigmatising Muslims and calling for him to be fired. The parent was among the seven presented to the judge.
($1 = 0.8420 euros)
(Reporting by Jean Terzian, Henri-Pierre Andre, Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon; Writing by Geert De Clercq and Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich)