PARIS – The suspect in the beheading of a history teacher in a Paris suburb was an 18-year-old immigrant of Chechen descent who was angered by the classroom display of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, French officials said on Saturday.
The suspect, identified by authorities as Abdoulakh A., tracked down the area outside the school on Friday afternoon before following the teacher, whom he stabbed and beheaded with a knife, Jean said. -François Ricard, the main counterterrorism prosecutor, at a press conference. .
“The individual was in front of the college in the afternoon and asked the students to point out the future victim to him,” Ricard said, referring to the college where the teacher, Samuel Paty, had taught. The suspect was fatally shot by police in a confrontation shortly after the murder, which took place in Eragny, a suburb near the school.
Investigators found a message planning the attack on the suspect’s cell phone, written hours earlier, Ricard said. Then, shortly before being killed by police, the suspect posted a photo of the victim on Twitter, he added.
The gruesome murder seemed to be the culmination of two weeks of tension at the school, Collège du Bois-d’Aulne, in a quiet, bourgeois suburb north of Paris. Muslim parents upset by the presentation to class of two cartoons published by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had contacted school and police officials, but videos uploaded to social media by a father widened the dispute to an audience outside.
Investigators were still trying to piece together how the suspect spent his days before the attack, Ricard said. But the suspect did not appear to have any direct connection to the school or to have been previously involved in the dispute.
Born in Moscow, the suspect lived in France with refugee status, Ricard said, adding that he was not known to counterterrorism officials.
The brutal murder was the second violent episode in weeks to be linked to the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, which led to the deadly attacks in Paris in 2015. Last month, as the trial of accomplices in the 2015 attack began , the magazine reposted the designs – an act that was seen as a bold statement in the name of free speech by some but a reckless and unnecessary provocation by others.
Last month, a 25-year-old Pakistani immigrant attacked two people outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices, apparently angered after watching videos showing protests in Pakistan against the reposting of the cartoons.
Beyond its brutality, Friday’s murder touched a much bigger nerve in France as President Emmanuel Macron and other senior government officials rushed to the scene on Friday evening.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Minister of National Education, declared that during the murder on Friday, it was “the republic that was attacked”. France said a ceremony would be organized to pay national tribute to the murdered professor.
The minister’s remarks reflected the central role played by French public schools – part of a national curriculum established by the central government – in instilling civic values and a national identity. But they also highlighted the recurring tensions between France’s traditional republican values and those of newcomers, especially those of Muslim faith who oppose the publication of the cartoons.
Tensions at Collège du Bois-d’Aulne emerged earlier this month as the teacher – who was 47 and, according to parents and students, had only been teaching at the school for a few years – broached the subject of freedom of expression.
To illustrate the topic, the teacher showed his students – mostly 13-year-olds – two caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in Charlie Hebdo, Ricard said. According to an email later sent to parents by the school principal, the teacher asked students who might be offended by the material to look away or temporarily leave the classroom. The teacher realized his awkwardness and apologized, according to the email, which was obtained by The New York Times.
Cécile Ribet-Retel, president of PEEP de Conflans, the local branch of a national association of parents of pupils, said her group had heard from around 20 parents, who had expressed their anger or their support for the teacher. Parents met with school officials and the two sides appeared to be working towards a deal, Ms Ribet-Retel said.
“But then the information obtained on social networks was amplified and distorted,” Ms. Ribet-Retel said. “And it became impossible to manage. ”
A particularly loud parent – the father of a 13-year-old girl who was upset by the cartoons – met with the principal and demanded that the teacher be fired, Ricard said. The father posted critical and angry videos to social media on October 7 and 12, identifying the teacher and the school, he said.
Laurent Brosse, the mayor of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, the Paris suburb where the school is located, said local officials had warned police intelligence services that the situation appeared to be getting out of control because of the video.
“We did what we felt was important at the time,” Brosse said, adding: “We know that this issue of free speech is a source of tension in society.
But despite these warnings, “there was no action,” said Ms. Ribet-Retel.
The video was shared widely on social media by individuals denouncing anti-Muslim racism and even official accounts from mosques and Muslim organizations.
“It has been disproportionate in the Muslim community,” said Siham Touazi, a councilor from a neighboring municipality, who received video-related messages in several WhatsApp groups.
The murder came just weeks after Mr Macron unveiled a plan to tackle what he described as the threat of “Islamist separatism” to French secularism. Mr Macron has partly focused on education, in particular to push back what he described as threats to secular values taught in schools across the country and citing the example of Muslim parents who were opposed to leaving their children take swimming lessons.
“The situation has become so tense in our country on questions of secularism and Islam that it has become impossible to have a reasonable conversation,” said Gérard Pommier, national president of PEEP, the association of parents of students.
The slain teacher – described by Ms Ribet-Retel and many current and former students as a committed and serious instructor – appeared to be trying to overcome tensions in her classroom over free speech. As he showed his class two cartoons, he suggested that those who might be offended – implicitly Muslim students – either leave or look away. In France, where it is illegal to ask people about their religion, the teacher’s proposal appears to violate the secularism of the country, said Rodrigo Arenas, co-president of FCPE, another association of parents of pupils.
Aude Clabaut, a teacher at another school in the area, said the murdered teacher should not have asked students to leave the classroom. But she said she was frustrated with the growing challenges of secularism in her own classroom, with some students refusing to remove their veils and Muslim parents challenging secularism classes.
“I am sad and I am furious,” said Clabaut, who joined a group of people on Saturday outside the school where the murdered teacher was working.
Hundreds of students and parents, as well as residents of the city, gathered to pay homage to the teacher, singing at one point “La Marseillaise”, the national anthem.
Some were holding signs that read “I am a teacher,” in direct reference to the supportive “Je suis Charlie” signs that appeared thousands of hours after the magazine’s attack in 2015. Several students hugged, staring swollen with tears.
But tensions were also present on Saturday afternoon, some not hesitating to point directly at Islamism. A man holding a sign – “Political Islam is a cancer. Eliminate it or die of it ”- was briefly questioned by the police and his sign was seized.
Norimitsu Onishi reported from Paris and Constant Méheut from Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Antonella Francini contributed to the Paris research.