France pays homage to slain teacher Samuel Paty at Sorbonne ceremony

France paid homage to slain professor Samuel Paty at the Sarbonne on October 21, 2020.
France paid homage to slain professor Samuel Paty at the Sarbonne on October 21, 2020. © François Mori, Pool/AFP

France paid tribute on Wednesday to a history teacher beheaded last week by a man angered at his decision to share controversial caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad with his class. President Emmanuel Macron spoke at an official memorial attended by Samuel Paty's family and some 400 guests at the Sorbonne university in Paris.


Paty's friends and family were joined by government officials in the illuminated courtyard of the Sorbonne, where the teacher's coffin was carried in by a contingent of uniformed guards. 

In a speech honouring the slain professor, Macron described him as "one of those teachers that we never forget".

He denounced "the cowards" behind the crime and said that Paty was killed because he "embodied" the values of the French Republic.

"We will continue the fight for freedom," of which Samuel Paty has become "the face", Macron said.  

The killing has prompted an outpouring of emotion and solidarity in France, with tens of thousands taking part in rallies countrywide over the weekend. Thousands more took part in a silent march in the teacher's honour in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on Tuesday.

Macron promised to "intensify" a clampdown on Islamist extremism in the days following the attack.

"Our fellow citizens expect action," Macron said during a visit to a Paris suburb on Tuesday. "These actions will be stepped up."

Police have carried out dozens of raids while the government has ordered the six-month closure of a mosque and plans to dissolve a group that supports Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Paty, a 47-year-old history and geography teacher, was attacked on Friday on his way home from the junior high school where he taught in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of Paris.

On Wednesday evening Macron posthumously granted the teacher France's highest civilian award, the Légion d'Honneur.

Paty had been the subject of an online hate campaign since showing his pupils caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed during a class on free speech – images similar to those that inspired a bloody assault on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo when they were originally published five years ago. 

Killer Abdullakh Anzorov – an 18-year-old originally from Chechnya – was shot dead by police shortly after the assault. 

'Directly implicated' 

A disgruntled parent who had fired up anger about Paty's lesson through messages on social media had exchanged messages on WhatsApp with Anzorov in the days leading up to the murder.

The material he uploaded was widely shared, including by a mosque in the northern Paris suburb of Pantin. The head of the mosque, M'hammed Henniche, said he had shared the video out of fear that Muslim children were being singled out in class.

But the government has now earmarked his mosque for a six-month closure – one of its most significant moves after days of raids and tough rhetoric.

Macron said a pro-Hamas group called the Cheikh Yassine Collective would also be dissolved for being "directly implicated" in the murder. The group's founder, radical Islamist Abdelhakim Sefrioui, is being held by police for publishing a video on YouTube that insulted Paty.

Macron added an international dimension to his anti-extremism efforts on Tuesday, asking Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for strengthened cooperation in the fight against terrorism during a phone call.

Russia has played down any association with the killer, saying Anzorov had never been in contact with their officials and had left the country more than a decade ago.

'A real scourge' 

Paty's beheading was the second knife attack claimed in the name of avenging Prophet Mohammad since a trial started last month over the Charlie Hebdo killings in 2015, when 12 people – including cartoonists – were gunned down for publishing the Mohammad cartoons.

The role of social media platforms has also come under scrutiny after much of the anger against Paty was whipped up on Facebook.

Paty's colleagues said in a statement they were deeply concerned about the impact of social networks, which they called "a real scourge" to their profession.

Samuel Paty
Samuel Paty © Ville de Conflans-Sainte-Honorine

The government has promised to create a new criminal offence that would punish anyone who endangers another person by publishing their details online, and ministers held talks with the French bosses of social networks on Tuesday to discuss the fight against "cyber-Islamism".

Parliament observed a minute of silence on Tuesday ahead of a silent march in the teacher's honour that evening.

The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, featured the headline "The decapitated Republic" on its front page along with cartoons representing various professions.

"These murderers want to decapitate democracy itself," the editorial said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning