The horrific killing of a schoolteacher is being used as an opportunity for the state to renew a racist offensive against French Muslims, argues Susan Ram
On October 16, Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old history and geography teacher at the Collège du Bois d’Aulne, a secondary school at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in the Yvelines department north-west of Paris, was the target of a particularly brutal and horrific attack. While walking home after class, he was repeatedly stabbed and finally decapitated by a teenaged assailant, later named as Abdoullakh Abouyezdovitch, who had travelled some distance to carry out the slaying.
The assassin, a Russian Chechen refugee previously unknown to the security and intelligence services, was later shot dead by police.
Very quickly the chain of events leading to the killing became common knowledge across France. It appeared that the teacher had been targeted because of the content of one of his lessons. As part of a citizenship course, he had opted to include in a discussion of freedom of speech some highly controversial visual material: the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published a few years ago by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. In January 2015, a reprisal attack on the journal’s offices by two radicalised Muslim brothers left 12 staff members dead and a further 11 injured.
Further details emerged: that Paty had included the incendiary images in the course he had taught a year earlier; that he had invited Muslim students to leave the classroom so as to avoid feeling offended or upset; and that this year’s lesson, on October 5, had triggered something of a storm on social media. A Muslim parent whose daughter attended the school (but was not present during Paty’s class) had prepared and shared a video in which he deplored the teacher’s action and proposed a campaign for his dismissal.
In any circumstances, the gruesome nature of the attack on a popular and respected teacher, committed in broad daylight on a quiet stretch of suburban road in full view of passers-by, would provoke shock, horror and alarm. In France, however, the frenzied actions of a lone killer who is Muslim lend themselves to a response that is disproportionate, irrational and deeply problematic. In a nation where Islamophobia is deeply embedded in the structure of the state, the result has been a frenzy of outrage - directed not so much at the criminality of the act (with a concomitant commitment to let the law run its course) as at the wider Muslim community.
The past few days have been particularly ugly in France. At a time when a second wave of Covid-19 is rampaging through the country, a different order of existential threat is being presented to citizens -- through TV discussions, newspaper stories and a chorus of stern warnings and barely concealed racism from the top. “The Republic is in danger!” thundered Gérald Darmanin, Macron’s deeply unpopular Minister of the Interior, appointed earlier this year in the face of rape accusations. “It’s the Republic that’s under attack,” echoed education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. Macron himself rushed to the scene of the killing to announce in front of the cameras that ‘concrete steps’ against 'radical Islam' would follow.
The current political atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of that which followed the Charlie Hebdo shootings nearly six years ago. Rallies held in support of the victim and his family, often initiated by teaching unions understandably horrified at the targeting of one of their own, have been transformed into displays of national defiance, premised on the existence of some lurking, catastrophic threat. Given the mood, those calling for a more measured response, or daring to raise questions about the wisdom and appropriateness of Samuel Paty’s choice of teaching material, are themselves becoming targets of abuse.
On September 2, the trial of fourteen people accused of complicity in the 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings opened in Paris. On September 25, Zaheer Hassan Mahmoud, a 25-year-old man of Pakistani origin launched an axe attack on two people outside the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo. Like Paty’s killer, he was previously unknown to French intelligence services – raising the possibility of surveillance and security lapses.
The need to step back, to undertake a more nuanced assessment of the background to the Paty killing is underlined by an interview, for the online news site Mediapart, with Alice Simon, a researcher in political sociology with direct experience of the school where Paty taught. Describing the school as “quite ordinary”, with students mostly from middle class families, she highlights the ways in which recent developments in France have stoked divisions within the student body: for example, ‘controversies’ over the food and dress preferences of Muslim pupils. In most cases, Simon notes, flare-ups have been quickly and amicably resolved through dialogue. But in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings tensions have harded:
“From the point of view of students who saw themselves as Muslim, they felt they were obliged to take a stand following the attacks … to express themselves as Muslims, whether regarding their disagreement with the publication of the cartoons and/or their condemnation of the terrorist acts… In general, students were asked to adopt the stand ‘Je suis Charlie’; any contrary opinion was considered anti-republican.”
Simon also draws attention to weaknesses in teacher training in France which tend to leave teachers ill-prepared to understand and accommodate the sensitivities of students from ethnic or religious minority backgrounds.
None of these insights seems likely to be picked up by lead players in the French political theatre of the absurd. Whether from the centre left Parti Socialiste, or Macron’s well-to-the-right-of-centre La République en Marche, or the Tory-style Républicains, or the neo-fascist redoubt that is Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National, most mainstream voices are currently roaring from the same script. “Tough” measures must be swiftly enacted! Undesirables must be expelled! (Darmanin has 253 names on his well-thumbed list.) Mosques must be ‘dissolved’: the Pantin Mosque, serving thousands of worshippers in a densely populated quarter of Paris, will close its doors from October 21. Social media must be scoured for dubious content! Remember at all times: the values of the Republic are in peril!
Organisations at the forefront of the struggle against Islamophobia and pillars of France’s anti-racist movement, including the exemplary Collectif contre l’Isamophobie en France (CCIF), are among bodies being threatened with closure.
Also under attack is the French left, especially those sections which have supported campaigns against Islamophobia or are moving in that direction. Earlier this month, Darmanin accused La France Insoumise (LFI), the radical left formation led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of being linked to “an islamo-gauchisme (Islamo-leftism) which is destroying the Republic.” For his part, Manuel Boucher, a sociology professor at the University of Perpignan, has sought to revive the anti-Occupation spirit of wartime France by alluding to la gauche collaborationiste (the collaborationist left).
Mélenchon, who attended a Paris rally in homage to Samuel Paty on October 18, has thus far expressed his position with caution. While deploring the atrocity, he has emphasised employing the full force of existing laws to bear down on criminal acts, and has repeatedly stressed the need for unity.
In a TV interview, Danièle Obono, an MP and spokesperson for LFI, called for a “rational, cool-headed” response to a situation she likened to a “volatile cocktail”. Resisting taunts from her interviewer, she defended the views of her LFI parliamentary colleague, Alexis Corbière, who in early October described the Macron government as being obsessed with Islam. “We need to protect all basic freedoms and build a common front based on unity and solidarity,” Obono stressed.
On October 17, the Marxist Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) issued a statement condemning the killing of Samuel Paty while also drawing attention to the cynical manipulation and weaponisation of the tragedy. The NPA also highlighted the hypocrisy of Macron and his education minister, noting that their sudden love for teachers ought to be set against the ongoing ordeal of four high school teachers in Melle near Poitiers: up before a disciplinary panel for the ‘crime’ of mobilising against controversial changes to the Bac (the French school leaving certificate).
In a statement published on October 19 and translated by John Mullen, the French Jewish Peace Union argued:
“There is something totalitarian in this new stage in the racist and Islamophobic discourse of the French State. The new phase has been brought in by the fraudulent introduction into public debate of the idea of ‘separatism’. We are supposed to believe that our fellow citizens of Muslim culture, believers and non-believers, want to separate themselves from the nation…The real separatism lies in the open attempt to scapegoat whole sections of our society just because they are Muslims.
“It is sickening and obscene to see government speak endlessly of ‘freedom of speech’, when this freedom has been under attack for years by repressive laws, violence or banning orders against demonstrations…
“We know the effects of this cranking up of racism because we Jews ourselves suffered from similar campaigns…The poisonous atmosphere today in France helps us understand what must have happened in France and Germany in the 1930s – how an entire society could be contaminated little by little by anti-Jewish speeches and press coverage, until it was enrolled into a genocidal crusade.”
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Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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