On Friday, October 16th, 2020, a history teacher in the Paris region, Samuel Paty, was found by a municipal police crew in the middle of the street—lifeless and nefariously mutilated. His assailant, a 18-year-old man of Chechen origin, born in Moscow and living in Evreux, affirmed the terrorist dimension of his act through a staggering tweet. As the attacker had no link with the school, he must have had all of the information concerning the victim from an external source. The National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor’s Office (PNAT) took up the investigation which was opened for “murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise” and “criminal terrorist association.” The motive for this group to act dates back to October 8th when Samuel Paty held a class on freedom of expression and showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, causing controversy within the school.
“One of our fellow citizens was murdered for teaching to his students the freedom of expression: to believe or not to believe,“ said French President Emmanuel Macron in a speech on Friday. To display a unified government standing together against terrorism, National Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer added that “it is the Republic that is under attack […] our unity and our firmness are the only answers to the monstrosity of Islamist terrorism. We will face it.” Paying tribute to all the teachers in France, Macron also promised that “the whole nation will be by their side, today and tomorrow, to protect them, defend them, and allow them to do their job which is the most beautiful one there is: to make free citizens.“ Indeed, professors rallied on Sunday, October 18th alongside the saying, ”The school cries but is not afraid,” more determined than ever to show that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Professor of philosophy Myriam Attali-Pariente explains how delicate the task of teaching freedom of expression is, but how thoughtful teachers are through the process. She describes how that they “stage it through moral and civic education: [they] use articles and cartoons on purpose, contextualizing them.” However, training the citizens of tomorrow has proven itself to be as fundamental as it is dangerous and as a school director from Paris rightly puts it: “We teach our students to develop their critical thinking […] to respect each other in their diversity and their differences. Today, I wonder how to carry out this project when our life can be threatened.”
In the short term, the investigators and legal system shall collect all of the available evidence against the terrorist’s accomplices, in order to retrace a possible organized network that would stand as the real culprit behind this act of terror. In the long term, early 2020 projects such as the opening of educational cities, the labelling of France Services houses in the cultural sector, the extension of library opening hours and the creation of digital museums should be multiplied. Education, integration and inclusion for many children and adults in the different layers of French society is the top priority here.
The residents of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, the city where the attack took place, are bereft of anything to say. But one question prevails. How is that possible that in “this small suburban town with provincial charm”—as described by humorist Yassine Belattar—a minor incident between a professor and his pupil lead to the atrocious murder of a simply passionate teacher?
The recent Charlie Hebdo trials blazed a trail of hope to obtain justice for victims of future barbaric acts of this kind. Indeed, now no one has the intention to stop fighting for liberty and keep the spirit of Samuel Paty alive by allowing the wind to echo:
[…] And by the power of a word
I start my life over
I was born to know you
To name you
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