PARIS – An 18-year-old immigrant of Chechen origin suspected of beheading a history teacher in a Paris suburb was angered by a demonstration in a caricature class of the Prophet Muhammad, French officials said on Saturday.
The suspect, identified by authorities as Abdullah A., searched the area near the school on Friday afternoon and then followed the teacher, whom he stabbed and beheaded with a knife, Jean-François Ricard, the top anti-terrorism prosecutor, told a news conference.
“The man was in front of the college the day before and asked the students to point out the future sacrifice,”; Mr Ricard said, referring to the high school where teacher Samuel Patty taught. The suspect was fatally shot by police in a confrontation shortly after the murder in Eranya, a suburb near the school.
Investigators found a report of an attack on the suspect’s cell phone, written hours earlier, Mr Ricard said. Then, shortly before he was killed by police, the suspect posted a photo of the victim on Twitter, he added.
The gruesome murder culminated in two weeks of tension at the Collège du Bois-d’Aulne in a quiet middle-class suburb north of Paris. Muslim parents, upset by the exhibition in the classroom of two cartoons published by the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, contacted school and police, but videos uploaded by one of the parents on social networks, expanded the controversy for the outside audience.
Investigators were still trying to figure out how the suspect spent his days before the attack, Mr Ricard said. But the suspect does not appear to have had direct links to the school or to have previously been involved in the dispute.
Born in Moscow, the suspect lived in France with refugee status, Mr Ricard said, adding that he was not known to the anti-terrorist service.
The brutal murder was the second violent episode in a few weeks related to the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, which led to the deadly attacks in Paris in 2015. Last month, when the trial of the accomplices in the 2015 attack began, the magazine republished the drawings, an act that some saw as a bold statement in the name of freedom of expression, but as a reckless and unnecessary provocation to others.
Last month, a 25-year-old Pakistani immigrant attacked two people near the former Charlie Hebdo offices, apparently in a rage after watching videos showing protests in Pakistan against the republicanization of cartoons.
In addition to the brutality, Friday’s assassination struck a much bigger nerve in France when President Emmanuel Macron and other top government officials stormed the scene on Friday night.
Jean-Michel Blanker, the national education minister, said a “republic” was attacked during Friday’s assassination. France has announced that a ceremony will be held to honor the slain teacher at the national level.
The minister’s remarks reflected the central role played by France’s public schools – in adhering to the national program set by the central government – in instilling civic values and national identity. But they also highlighted the continuing tension between France’s traditional republican values and the values of newcomers, especially Muslims, who oppose the publication of cartoons.
Tensions at the College of Boua d’Olne erupted earlier this month when a 47-year-old teacher who, according to parents and students, taught at the school for only a few years, raised the issue of free speech.
To illustrate the topic, the teacher showed his students – mostly 13 years old – two caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which appeared in “Charlie Hebdo”, – said Mr. Ricard. According to an e-mail later sent to the parents by the school principal, the teacher asked students who might be offended by the material, look away, or leave the classroom temporarily. The teacher realized his awkwardness and apologized, according to an email received by The New York Times.
Cecil Ribet-Retel, president of PEEP de Conflans, a local branch of the National Parents’ Association, said her group heard about 20 parents express their anger or support for the teacher. The parents met with school officials, and both sides appear to be working on an understanding, Ms. Ribet-Retel said.
“But then the information that came to social networks was amplified and distorted,” said Ms. Ribet-Retel. “And it became impossible to control them.”
One particularly vocal father, the father of a 13-year-old girl who was upset by the cartoons, met with the principal and demanded the teacher’s dismissal, Mr Ricard said. The father uploaded critical and angry videos to social media on October 7 and October 12, identifying the teacher and the school, he said.
Laurent Bros., mayor of Conflans-Saint-Honorine, a suburb of Paris where the school is located, said local officials had warned police intelligence that the video was spiraling out of control.
“We did what seemed important to us at the time,” Mr Bross said, adding: “We know that this issue of freedom of expression is exacerbating tensions in society.”
But despite these warnings, “there was no action,” Ms. Ribet-Retel said.
The video was widely shared on social media by people who condemned anti-Muslim racism and even the official accounts of mosques and Muslim organizations.
“It was inflated in the Muslim community,” said Siham Tuazi, a councilor at a nearby municipality who received a video link to several WhatsApp groups.
The assassination came just weeks after Mr Macron unveiled a plan to combat what he described as a threat of “Islamist separatism” to French secularism. Mr Macron focused in part on education, especially on repelling what he called a threat to secular values taught in national schools and citing the example of Muslim parents who did not allow their children to attend swimming lessons.
“The situation in our country has become so tense on issues of secularism and Islam that it has become impossible to have a reasonable conversation,” said Gerard Pomier, national president of the PEEP, the parents’ association.
The murdered teacher – described by Ms. Ribet-Retel and many current and former students as a dedicated and serious instructor – tried to overcome the tension in her class regarding freedom of speech. While he showed his class two cartoons, he suggested that those who might be offended — apparently Muslim students — leave or look away. In France, where it is forbidden to ask people about their religion, the teacher’s proposal seems to have violated the country’s secularism, said Rodrigo Arenas, co-chair of the FCPE, another parents’ association.
Od Klabo, a teacher at another school in the area, said the slain teacher should not have asked students to leave the classroom. But she said she was disappointed by the growing challenges of secularism in her own classroom, as some students refused to remove the curtains and Muslim parents challenged secularism courses.
“I’m sad and I’m angry,” said Ms. Clabo, who joined a group of people Saturday in front of the school where the slain teacher worked.
Hundreds of students and parents, as well as residents of the city gathered to pay tribute to the teacher, singing the national anthem “Marseilles” in one performance.
Some held placards reading “I am a teacher,” directly pointing to the “I am Charlie” signs of support that appeared thousands of hours after the 2015 attack on the magazine. Several students hugged each other, their eyes swollen with tears.
But tensions were also present on Saturday afternoon, as some did not hesitate to point directly to Islamism. A man holds a sign saying, “Political Islam is cancer. We eliminate him or die from it “- the police interrogated him briefly and removed his sign.
Permanent Meeut reported from Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Antonella Francini contributed research from Paris.