French police raid dozens of targets suspected of extremism after teacher beheaded

Days after a suspected Islamist beheaded a French school teacher, police on Monday raided Islamic associations and individuals suspected of extremist religious beliefs, arresting dozens of people, said France’s interior minister, in a sweep expected to last a few more days.

Three days after the murder of a teacher, France launched a series of police raids.
Three days after the murder of a teacher, France launched a series of police raids. © Bertrand Guay, AFP

History teacher Samuel Paty, 47, was murdered on Friday in broad daylight outside his school in a middle-class Paris suburb by an 18-year-old of Chechen origin. Police shot and killed the attacker.

Paty was attacked on his way home from the junior high school where he taught in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of Paris.

The teenage assassin allegedly sought to avenge his victim's use of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a class on freedom of expression to 13-year-olds. Muslims believe that any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous.

Public figures called the killing an attack on the Republic and on French values.

Fifteen people, including four students, were arrested Monday for questioning, according to a judicial source. The detainees included a man who was in contact with the perpetrator before the attack, the source added.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said there were some 80 investigations being conducted into hate speech online and that he was looking into whether to disband some 51 associations within the Muslim community. The associations included the Collective against Islamophobia in France (known by the French acronym CCIF) and the humanitarian association BarakaCity.

In a statement on the group’s Facebook page, BarakaCity slammed the move: "Madness has seized the interior minister who, because he cannot find anything against our NGO, has taken advantage of the emotion caused by this tragedy."

France was also preparing to deport 213 foreigners who were on a government watchlist and suspected of holding extreme religious beliefs, among whom about 150 are serving jail sentences, according to sources.

“They are quite unusual because normally, after such a tragedy, the investigation focuses on what happened, who was behind the attack. This is of course taking place. But the wave of arrests announced by the interior minister that will continue for the next few days is essentially focusing on those who have expressed support for the attacker or against the teacher online,” said Marc Perelman, FRANCE 24’s French politics editor. “So, it’s really a wide net that is being cast by the authorities.”

‘A fatwa against the teacher’

Police detained 11 people in connection with the attack in the 24 hours that followed Paty's killing. They included four members of the attacker’s family, who are being held for questioning.

A photo of the teacher and a message confessing to his murder was found on the mobile phone of his killer, identified as Abdullakh Anzorov, who arrived in France with his family to seek asylum when he was 6 years old.

Police also detained the father of a pupil in Paty’s class who had railed against the teacher online and called for his dismissal.

A judicial source told Reuters that another detained man was known to the intelligence agencies. Born in Morocco, he had used social media to fight against what he called "Islamophobia" and to put pressure on the government over its treatment of Muslims. In 2011, he agitated against a high school in Saint-Ouen, a working-class city with a large Muslim community near Paris, because it wanted to ban clothing used by Muslim girls to circumvent a ban on veils.

Darmanin accused the two men of issuing a "fatwa" against Paty, using the term for an Islamic edict that was famously used to describe the 1989 death sentence handed down against writer Salman Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

"They apparently launched a fatwa against the teacher," the minister told Europe 1 radio.

Paty, who was praised by pupils and parents as a dedicated teacher, had shown one of the Mohammed cartoons to his civics class.

According to the school, he had given Muslim children the option to leave the classroom before he showed the cartoons, saying he did not want their feelings to be hurt. 

The lesson sparked a furore nonetheless and Paty and the school received threats.

French teachers have long complained of tensions around religion and identity spilling over into the classroom.

One education expert warned Monday that the murder might deter teachers from tackling touchy topics in future.

"There's a huge amount of self-censorship," said Jean-Pierre Obin, a former inspector for the French education system. "We must fear that there will now be more."

But Jonathan Renoir, a 26-year-old history teacher at a junior high school in Cergy near Paris, said: "We can't give in to fear; we must continue to talk about controversial things in class."

Another young history teacher in Nice said he, too, was "determined" to carry on. 

"I will never stop teaching secularism and the freedom of expression – never," said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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