On Oct. 16, a heinous act of barbarism was committed in the Parisian suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old public school teacher of history and geography—by all accounts a gentle man—was beheaded after being stabbed numerous times. The crime for which Paty was brutally decapitated was delivering a civics lecture on the importance of freedom of speech and religion to his students and showing them cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. He is reported to have given his Muslim students an opportunity to leave the room or to close their eyes while he displayed a copy of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The killing took place in the context of the commencement of the high profile trial of accomplices of the January 2015 attackers on the magazine’s Paris office. The killer was reported by French media to be 18-year-old Russian citizen Abdoullakh Anzorov, a refugee who had spent the vast majority of his life in France and had not previously appeared on the radar of domestic French intelligence services. After committing the murder, the youth refused to surrender to the responding French security services, who pursued him and shot him dead. The picture of the decapitated teacher, which the killer had uploaded to Twitter along with a message of vengeance, was found on the phone that had been taken off his body, and was later distributed by ISIS. French security authorities have reportedly detained up to nine individuals connected to the gruesome assassination, as President Emmanuel Macron rightly described it.
The attempted public enforcement through murder of the Islamic prohibition against pictorial depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is utterly incompatible with French republican ideals and governing norms, which were developed during a centuries-long anticlerical battle with the French Catholic Church. Charlie Hebdo, with its equal opportunity anarchic assaults on all sacred cows and ideologies, is a uniquely French institution that has emerged as a lightning rod for France’s unresolved assimilation issues—and as a test case for whether France retains the will and the ability to protect its governing ideals from people who violently deny their continuing applicability.
Paty showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his students on Oct. 5. Le Point magazine has reported on a French intelligence document that states that “Samuel Paty opened his course on press freedom by showing his students the Charlie Hebdo caricatures and that the teacher took care to ask his students if some were of Muslim faith, offering them, if it bothered them, either to leave the class in the company of a school assistant, or to close their eyes for several seconds as he showed the cartoons.”
Paty’s action appears to have incensed a number of Muslim parents who asked the school authorities to intervene, to no effect. One of the aggrieved parents posted about the dispute on social media, causing a minor internet furor, which was likely how the killer Anzorov became cognizant of the issue. The killer stalked the gates of the school and asked several students to identify the offending teacher. Anzorov then followed Paty home and cut off his head with a machete.
The beheading was the second Islamist terror attack to have taken place in Paris recently in connection with Charlie Hebdo. A month ago, a Pakistani immigrant in his mid-20s brutally assaulted two men with a meat cleaver next to the previous location of the Charlie Hebdo office. The men, who had no connection to the magazine, were minding their own business and smoking before being attacked. Apparently the young fanatic had found the magazine’s old address on the internet and didn’t realize that it had moved. Much like Anzorov, the attacker had also been unknown to the intelligence services and later admitted to the authorities that his intention was to avenge what he thought of as insult against the prophet.
It is also the second time this year that France’s Chechen diaspora has made it into the headlines. A street conflict in the south of France erupted into fighting and mass reprisals as dozens of Chechen men, many of them veterans of the wars in Russia, gathered from all over France to settle accounts with a drug gang living in the decrepit suburbs.
On Sunday, Oct. 16, it was surprisingly Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left political gadfly and leader of La France Insoumise, who, speaking at a demonstration, called for the “expulsion” of the Chechens, remarking on the “problem with the Chechen community in France.” The Russian civil war had been exported to France, he pointed out, with the French now reaping the fruit of siding against Vladimir Putin’s opponents. He then took to Twitter, writing: “Faced with Islamist terrorism, we must respond very precisely. There is clearly a problem with the Chechen community in France.” Mélenchon was rebuked by former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a committed enemy of anti-Semitism, who archly pointed out that Mélenchon himself carried “a very great responsibility in this cowardice from the left”.
These two attacks, barely a month apart, do feel like they represent some sort of turning point in France’s struggle to define and defend itself in the middle of a continuing Islamist terror wave that began almost a decade ago. President Macron had publicly stepped up his campaign against political Islamism in France during the previous weeks, and the latest incidents appeared to demonstrate the legitimacy of his arguments that France faced an existential crisis, while also demonstrating that his government was clearly not doing enough. The French state announced on Monday that at least 200 individuals who were considered a radical threat by security forces would now be deported from France.
Tablet’s correspondent attended the Sunday Paris demonstration in the central Republique square in solidarity with Paty, which appeared to show high levels of public support for Macron’s initiatives and the French values they are meant to protect. The demonstration was tens of thousands strong and militantly serious. Schoolteachers were out in force. Numerous people waved their copies of Charlie Hebdo. The demonstrators represented a cross section of the population, and their placards were plaintive, generous, and occasionally witty.
Yet, perhaps because of exhaustion or built up trauma, the demonstration, which was very touching and somber in many ways, did not draw the millions who had attended previous demonstrations. As the second wave resurgence of the coronavirus has overwhelmed French hospitals and brought infection rates back up to unacceptable levels, mandatory nighttime curfews on free movement have been reimposed in various cities throughout France. Many Parisians have become visibly exhausted by the cycle of violence, and the somber atmosphere on the square showed it. Yet the single violent incident that Tablet’s correspondent observed involving an angry middle-aged French man left open the question of how bright the future for communal cooperation might actually be.
A dedicated band of Algerian democracy protesters that gathers with Algerian national flags and posters every Sunday shared the side of the square with the demonstration in honor and defense of Paty. Their stall was assaulted by a tall and rotund middle-aged French man, dressed in a working class sort of leather rocker outfit and bedecked with numerous steel rings. The French man threw the Algerian flag to the ground, showed the Algerians his middle finger, and began fighting with some of them. Upon barreling through the crowd and pushing me to the side he was himself pushed to the floor, with some of the Algerian men having to keep their enraged comrades from stomping his head into the sidewalk beneath the statue of Marianne. The gendarmes then twisted the troublemaker’s arms behind his back and dashed him against the side of a blue police van in an efficient display of concerted violence.
On Wednesday the French government sent an unmistakable message as Samuel Paty was posthumously awarded the Légion d’honneur.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.