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For a teacher in France, a lesson on freedom of expression was followed by death

French CRS police walk out of a middle school in Conflans Saint-Honorine, 30 kilometres northwest of Paris, on October 17, 2020, next to flowers displayed after a teacher was decapitated by an attacker who has been shot dead by policemen.
French CRS police walk out of a middle school in Conflans Saint-Honorine, 30 kilometres northwest of Paris, on October 17, 2020, next to flowers displayed after a teacher was decapitated by an attacker who has been shot dead by policemen. © Bertrand Guay, AFP
10 min

The middle school teacher knifed to death on the street of a Paris suburb on Friday showed his teenage students a cartoon lampooning the Prophet Mohammed as part of a class on freedom of expression earlier this month, parents said.

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Nordine Chaouadi told Reuters he was the father of a 13-year-old pupil who attended the civics class given by the teacher, whom parents gathered outside the college referred to as Mr. Paty. French media have identified him as Samuel Paty.

The teacher had asked pupils who were Muslim to raise their hands and invited them to leave, advising them he would be showing a caricature of Mohammed that might cause offence, Chaouadi said.

For Muslims, any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous.

Chaouadi said his son, a Muslim, interpreted the teacher's actions as done out of kindness and respect for their faith.

"He did it to protect the children, not to shock them," said Chaouadi.

Some parents took offence, however. Two or three days later, they held a meeting at the school with the teacher, school principal, and an official from the education authority.

"It went well. There was no shouting or talking over each other. My wife took part in it. She said it was a man who made a mistake, it happens to everyone," Chaouadi added.

The school, the College du Bois d'Aulne in the middle-class suburb of Conflans-Saint-Honorine, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Lawmakers and teachers' unions hailed the slain teacher's courage for confronting challenging taboos in French society. Freedom of expression was a core tenet of democracy, they said.

Jean-Remi Girard, president of the National Union of School Teachers, said that children needed to understand that blasphemy can shock, but is legal.

Speaking on CNews, Girard said "We are in France, in the 21st century, and we have a teacher who was beheaded in the street simply because he tried to teach."

“This is extremely shocking. It is a barbaric and inhumane act, it attacks liberty and also freedom of expression," said Lucien Bonniere, an economics teacher from Northern France speaking with FRANCE 24.

“You could never imagine this happening to someone for just doing their job. Killing a teacher is incredibly serious, it is impossible to describe. And this barbaric method of decapitation is such a grotesquely violent gesture."

Charlie Hebdo trial in progress

The attack came as a trial is in progress over the January 2015 massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, which had published caricatures of the prophet that unleashed a wave of anger across the Islamic world.

The magazine defiantly re-published the cartoons in the run-up to the trial's opening in September, and shortly afterward, a young Pakistani wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside the magazine's former offices.

In a tweet, Charlie Hebdo expressed its "sense of horror and revolt" at Friday's attack.

The magazine also tweeted that this act of terror made it even more important to protect freedom. "This monstrous act plunges our democracy into mourning, but must make us more determined than ever to defend our freedom."

Friday’s attack came as Macron’s government works on a bill to address Islamic radicals, who authorities claim are creating a parallel society outside the values of the French Republic. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with up to 5 million people, and Islam is the country’s second largest religion.

Local centre-right lawmaker Antoine Savignat said, "If we cannot talk about the Charlie Hebdo caricatures in school, we end up in denialism... In France, the country of freedom of expression, this cannot be allowed to happen."

The hashtags #jesuischarlie and #jesuisprof were both trending on French twitter on Saturday.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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