PARIS (Reuters) – Schools across France held a minute’s silence on Monday in memory of Samuel Paty, the teacher beheaded by a Chechen teenager who wanted to avenge his use of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad during a class on freedom of expression.
With France at its highest security level following further attacks since Paty’s killing on Oct. 16, some 12 million pupils returned to school for the first time since the 47-year-old was slain in broad daylight on the eve of a two-week school holiday.
President Emmanuel Macron cast the killing as an attack on French values and the Republic itself. But his insistence that France will not compromise on basic freedoms of belief and expression has provoked an outcry among Muslims worldwide.
“The idea of terrorism is to create hatred,” Macron wrote in a message to schoolchildren on social media. “We will pull through this together.”
Around the country, pupils stood in silence at 11 a.m. while teachers were told to allow time to answer questions about Paty’s killing.
“My students needed to offload what was on their minds,” said Isabelle Leborgn, a high school teacher in western France.
The attack and national soul-searching that ensued had confused many youngsters, she said. “Some think it’s the fault of a religion. There are many things to reflect on.”
The attack on Paty, as well as one in a church in Nice and another on a preacher in Lyon in the two weeks that followed, have left France on edge. The government has said more attacks are likely.
“It’s always in the back of your head that we live in a society where there is a potential risk,” said Clement, a student at the school where Leborgn teaches. “But we cannot always live in fear.”
“THEY ARE TRYING TO DIVIDE US”
France has deployed extra soldiers to protect places of worship and schools following the recent attacks.
Paty’s macabre murder convulsed secular France, where the separation of church and state is fiercely defended by many citizens of all faiths. It also exposed the fault lines cleaving a country where some Muslims see the government’s use of secular laws as a tool to suppress their expression of religious belief.
One group of Muslim leaders on Monday issued a statement defending France’s strict adherence to secularism – known as laicite – and condemning violence carried out in the name of Islam.
“Laicite is essential to allowing different religions including Islam to flourish in France,” the leaders said. They denounced those who they said manipulated fellow Muslims into believing they were suffering at the hands of a racist state.
“These people are trying to divide us and sew discord,” they continued.
Macron has enraged Muslims around the globe by describing Islam as “a religion in crisis all over the world” and defending free speech that some deem blasphemous or inflammatory.
On Monday, thousands protested outside the French embassy in Jakarta carrying banners calling Macron the “real terrorist”.
In Bangladesh, supporters of the Islamic group Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam) used their shoes to beat on a poster of Macron as thousands marched on the embassy in Dhaka.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will travel to Niger, Egypt and Morocco over the next week as part of efforts to defuse tensions, diplomatic sources said.
(Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood, Susan Fenton and Hugh Lawson)