PARIS – A man with a knife beheaded a teacher near a school in a northern Paris suburb on Friday afternoon and was later shot dead by police, officials said, brutally hitting France with national trauma which rekindled memories of recent terrorist attacks.
A police officer and relatives with knowledge of the attack confirmed French media reports that the victim was a school history teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a free speech class, which had provoked the anger of certain Muslim families.
The still unidentified professor on Friday night was immediately portrayed as a martyr for free speech across the political spectrum. Representatives in the French Parliament rose to “honor the memory of the victim,” said session chairman, MP Hugues Renson, as the deputies rose. And President Emmanuel Macron rushed to the scene of the attack on Friday evening.
“It was an attempt to overthrow the republic,” Macron said.
Seizing the symbolic nature of an attack on a high school teacher and echoing the anti-Islamist themes he recently highlighted, Mr Macron said the teacher had been “the victim of a terrorist and Islamist attack”.
The teacher was struck off “because he taught, because he taught freedom of expression, the freedom to believe and not to believe,” the French president said in a brief televised address.
French anti-terrorism prosecutors immediately resumed the investigation into the attack, which took place at the junction of two neighboring Parisian suburbs, Eragny and Conflans-Sainte-Honorine.
Much remained in the dark on Friday night in the absence of an official police account. But the underlying themes of what was known evoked the recent history of the terrorist attacks in France: an assailant carefully choosing a victim believed to symbolize an offense against Islam.
The unrest at school over the teacher’s teaching method – Mr Macron alluded to in his remarks – clearly predated the murder. “We have seen the director, who in recent weeks has resisted many pressures with remarkable courage,” Macron said.
In a video widely disseminated on YouTube before the attack, a Muslim parent at the teachers’ school, Collège du Bois-d’Aulne, expresses anger at the idea that an unidentified teacher asked Muslims in the 13-year-old class to leave because “he was going to show a photo that would shock them”.
The parent asks on the video, “Why this hatred? Why does a history teacher act like this in front of 13-year-olds? “
The perpetrator is not known to have a connection to the school. French media reported that he was 18 and of Russian descent.
A police union official told French television station BFM that witnesses saw the assailant slit the victim’s throat. National police were called, officials said, and after finding the decapitated victim, she confronted the assailant nearby, near the school. Wielding a large knife, he threatened the officers and, after refusing to surrender, was shot 10 times, they said.
French media, citing witnesses, said the assailant was heard shouting “Allahu akbar” at the time of the knife attack. A photograph of a corpse lying in the middle of a leafy suburban street appeared on French television shortly after.
The attack came three weeks after an assailant armed with a knife wounded two people in Paris near the site of the former Charlie Hebdo office – the scene of a 2015 terrorist attack targeting the satirical newspaper for its caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
French officials from all political stripes rushed to denounce the teacher’s murder. The Minister of the Interior, in charge of the police, interrupted an official trip to Morocco and flew to Paris.
“The assassination of a history professor is an attack on freedom of expression and the values of the republic”, declared the President of the National Assembly, Richard Ferrand. Twitter. “To attack a teacher is to attack all French citizens and freedom.”
“Terrible. Huge emotion and anger in the face of this terrorist barbarism,” wrote a leading socialist parliamentarian, Boris Vallaud, on Twitter.
In the video, the parent details what his daughter told him that happened in class.
“So this week, he allowed himself to tell them, Muslims, Muslim students raise their hands,” say the parents. “So they raised their hand, and he said, ‘Okay, leave the class.’ So my daughter refused to leave and asked her, “why? And he said he was going to show a picture that would shock them. And then he showed them a naked man, telling them it was the prophet.
Another parent, Carine Mendes, 41, whose child had attended class, offered a more nuanced view of what happened. She called the teacher “a very nice person, in his words, in his expressions.”
Ms Mendes said the teacher suggested that Muslim students who did not want to see the cartoon temporarily leave the classroom and asked those who remained not to tell their Muslim classmates about the cartoon so as not to offend their faith.
“He really tried to do things with respect, he didn’t want to hurt anyone,” she says.
But in a second class where the teacher taught the lesson, a shocked student refused to leave the room and told her father what had happened. It was the father who complained later in the video uploaded.
The next day, the teacher apologized to his students and the principal emailed the parents to try to clarify the situation. The teacher’s suggestion to leave the classroom, the principal said, had been callous.
“Without wanting to offend anyone, it turned out that by offering this possibility to the students, he still offended the student,” reads the director’s email.
Ms Mendes said what had happened “was horrible”.
“He was just teaching a free speech class,” she said.
“A teacher was killed simply for doing his job,” Sophie Venetitay, head of the teachers’ union, told BFM.
Constant Méheut and Antonella Francini contributed to the report.