Critics Question France's Response to the Beheading of a Teacher

The government has vowed to accelerate a crackdown on fundamentalists.
October 19, 2020, 4:35pm
A woman holds a placard reading "I'm Samuel Paty" after the killing of Paty, a teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine.
A woman holds a placard reading "I'm Samuel Paty" after the killing of Paty, a teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Photo: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

French police carried out raids on Islamist networks suspected of encouraging extremism Monday, as the government vowed to accelerate a crackdown on fundamentalists following the beheading of a school teacher, drawing criticism from NGOs.

Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old history teacher, was murdered outside his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in the northern suburbs of Paris, Friday. His killer, 18-year-old Aboulakh Anzorov, was angered that the teacher had shown his pupils controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad during a lesson on freedom of expression.

The display of the cartoons, considered blasphemous in Islam, had triggered an angry campaign against Paty on social media after the father of one of his Muslim students recorded videos denouncing him as a thug, before calling for action.

Prosecutors said Anzorov, who was shot dead by police at the scene, had approached students at the school asking them to identify Paty before he launched his attack. He then posted a photo of the body to Twitter with a message addressed to French President Emmanuel Macron, saying he had “executed one of your hell-hounds who dared to belittle Muhammad”.

The brutal killing, labelled an Islamist terror attack by Macron, sparked international outcry and mass demonstrations across France, and has prompted the French government to accelerate its campaign against “creeping Islamism”.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said Monday that Paty had been the target of a fatwa, or Islamic religious edict, from those who had campaigned against him. He said that police had opened 80 investigations into online hate, and that dozens of Islamist groups would be investigated, with some potentially disbanded, for promoting violence and hate.

“We want to send a message: not a minute's respite for the enemies of the Republic,” he said on France’s Europe 1 radio.

Darmanin said he was in favour of two such NGOs being forcibly shut down: the Collective against Islamophobia in France, or CCIF, and BarakaCity, which he described on Twitter as “enemies of the Republic”.

“We must stop being naive and face the truth: there is no possible accommodation with radical Islamism,” he wrote.

While Darmanin told Europe 1 that the two NGOs were "obviously involved" in the events that led to the murder, both NGOs denied any wrongdoing. In a statement, CCIF said it had been contacted by the pupil's father, and was still assessing his claim of discrimination when Paty was killed. BarakaCity, whose founder was arrested on Wednesday as part of a separate probe for harassment of a radio personality, said in a tweet Monday it had “not committed any illegal act that justified dissolution".

There is broad support for a crackdown on Islamist networks in France, which produced more foreign fighters who joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria than any other European nation — more than 1,900. The country has been regularly struck by jihadist terror, including the November 2015 Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed and the 2016 Nice attack in which 86 were killed.

Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director of the Counter Extremism Project, told VICE News that Macron’s renewed commitment to tackling Islamist extremism “seems to be a step in the right direction.” 

“Actions must have consequences,” he said. “Groups and organisations which only serve to promote hate and division serve no place in a civilised society. But a balance must be struck.”

He said France had made numerous attempts to tackle the problem of Islamist radicalisation in the past five years, including repeatedly extending a national state of emergency and  beginning to launch deradicalisation centres around the country.

“The results from these programs have been mixed,” he said, adding that those outcomes highlighted the difficulty in designing, implementing and evaluating effective counter-extremism programs.

Others questioned the crackdown on NGOs as an effective response.

“Banning civil society organisations that have not been proven to break any laws [is] rarely effective in any counter-terrorism effort. When it comes to civil society groups that haven’t even been widely claimed to incite violence, it becomes even more counter-productive,” H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told VICE News.

“At a time when emotions are running high, however, it is often the case that government[s] move for populist measures, rather than effective policy ones.”

Police have detained at least 11 people in connection with the attack, including the aggrieved father of the pupil and an Islamist activist known to French security services, who was involved in the campaign against Paty.

Schindler said that France, like most other European countries, was undergoing a temporary decline in larger, organised Islamist terrorist attacks, amid a drastic reduction in “soft targets” as a result of the coronavirus restrictions. 

But there was simultaneously a spike in online extremist activities, while the threat from radicalised individuals who were “well networked online but are not necessarily part of any particular offline terrorist structure” appeared to be on the rise. The murder of Paty was the second attack linked to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in just three weeks, after two people were seriously wounded in a knife attack in front of the former Charlie Hebdo offices last month.

Tensions over Islam and freedom of speech in the secular French republic have reignited since Charlie Hebdo republished the infamous Muhammad cartoons last month, to coincide with the start of the trial of 14 alleged accomplices of terrorists who attacked the newspaper in 2015, killing 12. In the proceedings Monday, the newspaper’s lawyer, Richard Malka, paid tribute to Paty, saying he had been right to discuss the cartoons in his class.

“There is freedom of expression, there is freedom to teach,” he said. “We were right to publish these cartoons, Samuel Paty was right to talk about them.”