One year on from the gruesome killing of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, murdered by an Islamist militant for having shown cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a class on freedom of expression, students and teachers spoke to Jowharabout how that unspeakable event affected them.
On October 16, 2020, Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher, was stabbed and beheaded near his school in the town of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, near Paris. The perpetrator was 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Russian refugee from Chechnya who was killed by police soon after the murder.
Anzorov had no connection with Paty or the school. He travelled from his home in Normandy to kill the teacher after discovering a video posted by a pupil’s father who was angry that Paty had shown students images of the Prophet Mohammed in a civics class. Paty was teaching the children about freedom of expression. He emphasised that they could choose not to look at the Charlie Hebdo cartoons if they were offended.
The pupil in question had lied to her father before he posted videos on YouTube and Facebook. She had been suspended from school for truancy since the day before Paty had shown the cartoons, so was not present in the class. She told her father – untruthfully – that the school had disciplined her for having protested against a request by Paty that Muslim students identify themselves.
The gruesome murder of Paty sparked outrage across France – prompting President Emmanuel Macron to crack down on the root causes of Islamist extremism in a country reeling from a wave of jihadist attacks since 2015 that have killed more than 250 people.
This wave of terror started when seventeen people were killed over three days of attacks in January 2015, beginning with the massacre of 12 people at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for publishing the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Jowharspoke to teachers and students who were shaken by the attack.
Florence, secondary school history and geography teacher: ‘Many of us teachers broke down’
When Samuel Paty was murdered one year ago, Florence was sitting outside a café in Paris, where she had gone to attend a conference during the school holidays. “As soon as I found out what happened, I decided not to read the papers because it just hit too close to home,” she said. “I literally thought I was going to break down.
“I took the train home [to Nantes on the west coast]. Back in Paris, people I’d worked with there told me they were going to go to a vigil of teachers in Place de la République [a popular site for demonstrations in the east of the city],” Florence continued. “It’d have been good if I were a Parisian; it’d have done me good to be there with all those people.”
Instead Florence was on her own for the next two weeks – it was the school holidays and she was unable to discuss Paty’s murder with her colleagues: “I didn’t know quite what to think; the school’s leadership team were sending contradictory messages. I was wondering how we were going to deal with this at the start of the new term, whether there’d be any time to think about what happened.”
People gather on Place de la République in eastern Paris on October 18, 2020, in homage to teacher Samuel Paty two days after he was beheaded. © AFP
When the education ministry announced that a minute’s silence would take place in school at the start of the term, Florence’s first thought was to protect her two sons, aged 7 and 8. “A history and geography teacher – just like their mum – was murdered in unspeakable circumstances,” she said. “The violence of it shook me profoundly. It was the kind of thing you’d hear about in Iraq or Syria – but not in France. Cutting off someone’s head with a butcher’s knife is horrific.”
Florence turned off the news on the TV and radio when her children were present – preferring to explain to them what happened in her own words, instead of “letting them hear it on the playground as soon as they went back to school”.
“I also contacted their teachers to let them know how I was handling it with my children – and they were really great about it,” Florence continued. “I remember my son’s teacher rang me up straight away during the holidays to put me at ease.”
The new term began in a difficult context for other reasons, as France was experiencing a surge in Covid-19 deaths in October 2020 – and the government’s public health measures did not allow schools to bring all of their pupils together for a moment of commemoration.
Each teacher at Florence’s school was tasked with holding a minute of silence in their classroom at 11 am. “Many of us teachers broke down in front of our students,” she said.
Florence was going to read out the talismanic letter to teachers by Jean Jaurès, an intellectual and politician who played a major role in developing France’s republican principles in the decades before his assassination in 1914. This letter – revered by generations of French teachers and students – famously starts: “You hold the intelligence and souls of children in your hands …”
But Florence could not get through it all: “I started to cry. One of my students stood up. He read out the letter until the end without me having to ask.”
At that point, Florence felt this was as far as she could go; she was unable to devote an hour-long lesson to the significance of the murder. “I was still too emotional – I couldn’t get enough of that sense of distance to deal with it properly. In fact, a bunch of adults who were completely traumatised by what happened were sent to stand there in front of their students – without realising that they had to be taken care of before they could take care of their pupils.”
Florence had expected her bosses to set aside a period of time for teachers to talk to each other and “process what happened”. She got the sense that people “weren’t looking at the big picture”.
Florence had shown her students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons “around the time” of the massacre at the magazine’s offices in January 2015, because France’s history and geography teachers were “asked to explain the events to their students.”
“Everything went well,” Florence recounted, with no regrets. “We use cartoons all the time when we’re teaching history and geography. They aren’t just images that people use to make a point. They’re an object of study that we learn to understand, analyse and criticise. As soon as you start censoring yourself it’s over – being a teacher isn’t worth it anymore.”
Even now, Florence still feels that the beheading of Paty “left its mark” on her. She thinks it was a shame that, to mark the anniversary, the education ministry announced a moment of commemoration for Paty “at the last minute” because it was “essential” to honour him properly.
“I still haven’t processed it emotionally,” Florence said. “And the way things are going now makes me wonder about the institution I’m working for.”
People hold a placard reading “I teach, therefore I am” and a portrait of history teacher Samuel Paty as they gather at Place de la République in Paris on October 18, 2020. © AFP
Soraya, school teacher: ‘I felt the pain twice: as a teacher, and as a Muslim’
“I found out as soon as I got home, right after work. I turned the TV on and burst into tears. My children didn’t understand why I was in this state watching the news. I remember explaining it to them saying ‘that could have been me’,” said Soraya, a mother of three children and a teacher for three years at a school in Créteil, a suburb on the other side of Paris from where Paty was murdered.
Never before had it struck her that teaching was a “risky” job. “As a teacher, when you come to work you think about how you’re passing on knowledge and how much you really want to enlighten the children – you don’t think you might be killed there.”
Soraya soon felt the need to talk about it: “I felt like I was hurt twice: as a teacher, and as a Muslim. I felt betrayed by the person who committed that horrible act in the name of Islam and who – on top of that – did it to a teacher.”
When Soraya returned to her nursery school after the holidays, teachers discussed the killing of Paty in the staff room. Notably, there was an impassioned exchange of views with a colleague whom she nevertheless holds in high esteem. “I thought she was completely wrong […] I can just see it now, explaining to her that Muslims don’t condone what happened – that a real Muslim doesn’t do that.”
There were also lively discussions about the famous email to headteachers from the education ministry asking teachers to report to their bosses any potentially troubling statements by their pupils about laïcité, the French form of secularism designed to keep religion out of politics and education.
“It’s important to talk about it with our pupils – they need to discuss it, because we don’t know how they experienced the news at home. But if you betray their consciences by starting a discussion and noting down things they’ve said on a card – that makes me angry. Because are teachers qualified to detect signs of radicalisation? I’m not sure. We’re not at all trained to that. So we shouldn’t be asked to.”
Students and teachers gather in a moment of commemoration for Samuel Paty at the Aragon secondary school in Muret near Toulouse in the Occitanie region of southwestern France on November 02, 2020. © AFP
Shaïma, recent secondary school student: ‘A stabbing at my school reminded me of Paty’
“I can’t remember the day Samuel Paty died anymore,” admitted Shaïma, who finished her high school studies last year in Seine-Saint-Denis, a county encompassing working-class suburbs to the north and east of Paris. Above all, Shaïma remembers her history teacher’s “embarrassment” when the subject of the murder came up in class.
“I got the impression that he didn’t really dare talk about it and that he was kind of taking refuge in the minute of silence,” Shaïma said. “It was clear that he was quite affected by what had happened. We wanted to discuss it; we asked a lot of questions. I wanted to hear his opinion – I was curious about whether he would have shown these drawings in class and about whether it was normal for parents to get involved, filming videos and posting them on social media. I needed to hear a variety of opinions so I could know where I stood and so I could take the matter seriously.
“He said that he didn’t want to talk about it, that he wasn’t well-placed to do so – but also that he was a history teacher and that in this role he wouldn’t mind showing the cartoons as part of a class,” Shaïma continued.
Looking back at that lesson, Shaïma wondered whether her teacher was shaken by what one of her classmates said. “Everyone there was empathetic. Nothing justifies what Samuel Paty suffered. But one student said: ‘He didn’t have to show the cartoons’. We all criticised her, she apologised and even cried because she was ashamed of what she’d said. I think it was an act of provocation.” The teacher did not intervene during the entire exchange, Shaïma said. She tried to bring the subject up with other teachers through the rest of the school year, but none of them wanted to talk about it.
As well as this reluctance to broach the subject, the sense of fear about violent crime was a big problem for Shaïma at the time. “I was reminded of what happened to Samuel Paty a month later when a student at my school was stabbed in the leg,” she said. Warring gangs have been carrying out violent acts of retribution against each other in the town where she went to school.
People display placards in support of laïcité, the French form of secularism designed to keep religion out of politics and education, at a demonstration in honour of Samuel Paty in Bordeaux on October 18, 2020. © AFP
Justine, secondary school art teacher: ‘I’d been talking about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons just the day before’
Justine often talks about satirical drawings when teaching history of art at her school in Seine-Saint-Denis. “I’d been talking about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons about Islam just the day before Samuel Paty was murdered,” she said. “The topic was Byzantine art and anthropomorphism in monotheistic religions, and – as they frequently do – my students made the connection and asked questions about the cartoons.” The class went well, Justine said, as it often does.
Enjoying a close bond with her students, Justine feels comfortable tackling big subjects – free from taboos – with these teenagers who thirst for knowledge. Justine discusses with her class a wide variety of subjects, from the influences on 19th century French painter Gustave Courbet to anti-Semitism to fake news. “I know teenagers well,” she said. “The important thing is to prepare the ground, to explain things, to elucidate.
“I was shocked [by the murder of Paty], like a lot of teachers,” Justine continued. “A fellow teacher had been killed for showing those same drawings.”
For Justine, the beheading of Paty showed just how dangerous social media could be – as well as underlining the value of both freedom of expression and laïcité.
In the run-up to his murder, Paty’s name and his school’s address circulated on social media along with calls for his resignation. “My students and other people their age spend a huge amount of time on those networks, immersed in a world that completely escapes adults,” Justine pointed out. Discussions between teachers and students about the downsides of social media are long overdue, she said.
The minute of silence to pay tribute to Paty last year was conducted with the greatest respect at the school where Justine teaches. The headteacher read out the letter from Jean Jaurès with a microphone as a loudspeaker broadcast it throughout the school.
“Things are getting better,” Justine said. “No young people endorse violence in the name of religion. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks there was a child who said ‘ok, we shouldn’t kill them, but they drew cartoons of the prophet’. We talked for weeks about what this ‘but’ meant, and he finally understood.”
In response to people who took issue with the education ministry asking teachers to report any “incident” during the minute of silence for Paty or during class discussions on the issue, Justine said that “there comes a point when you have to remind people what the rules are”.
“Everyone can do what they want, religion is a personal choice, that’s not a problem – but the law has to be the same for everyone. State schools are secular and their values – like freedom of expression – are those of the French Republic. Students who don’t like that are free to go to private schools.”