Samuel Paty knew he was going to be showing something controversial. Mohammed cartoons that have been leading to protest and violence among strongly religious Muslims since 2005. Cartoons that are subject to free speech in a democratic society. That tension the teacher wanted to illustrate, can be concluded from the stories of students that are now becoming known. The picture arises that Paty was certainly not out to hurt people.
“He asked at the start of the class if Muslim students would raise their hands if they wanted to leave the room,” says Nordine Chaouadi. His son was taught by Paty. “He explained to them: I prefer you to leave, because I don’t want to shock you with a cartoon of the prophet.”
It was a lesson Paty had taught before. A lesson that was even more urgent this year than usual, because the cartoons in question were also central to the attack on Charlie Hebdo almost six years ago. Last month, the trial started, followed by another violent attack on the satirical weekly.
In previous years, showing the cartoons had not caused a stir in the classroom. Chaouadi: “This time a girl decided to stay in the classroom. That’s where it started.”
Students describe Paty as an amiable, enthusiastic teacher. “He was all about his job, he really wanted to teach us something”, 16-year-old Nathan says in the French media. “He joked in class, he was very involved,” said a 13-year-old schoolmate.
The father of a student also says that Paty paid attention to the sensitivities. He was never racist. Certainly not. His lessons weren’t meant to be shocking.
Still, 16-year-old student Martial says, “I immediately knew it was Mr. Paty when I read that a teacher had been beheaded in Bois d’Aulne.” Everyone at the school had learned something from the fuss that had arisen this time.
The student who stayed behind had told about the insulting cartoons at home. Her father fiercely posted videos on social media about the material.
“This bastard should not be part of our national education system. He shouldn’t be teaching our kids, he should take a lesson himself,” the man said in a video. He called on allies to report. Interior Minister Darmanin said this morning that afterwards a radical Muslim activist issued a fatwa against Paty. That makes him outlaw.
In the meantime, the school tried to calm things down with a parents’ evening. Several parents came by to talk. Although the man stayed away from the film, the school was convinced that this had settled the matter.
The school said that the father did not have the facts in order and that he was discussed. We thought that ended the affair.
“It went well. There was no shouting or intercourse,” says Chaouadi. “My wife was there and she thought someone had made a mistake. That can happen to anyone. You don’t have to go all out on social media there.”
“The school told us that the father did not have the facts in order and that he was being discussed,” said Cécile Ribet Retel, chairman of the parent council to the BBC. “We thought the affair was over.”
But a few days later Paty was murdered. The perpetrator, an 18-year-old Chechen, had no known direct relationship with Paty. He came from Évreux in Normandy, some 50 miles away. The man was shot by the police when he did not want to surrender.
France will officially commemorate Paty next Wednesday. Details on this will be announced later.
This weekend, people already gathered en masse in various places in the country to protest, commemorate and mourn. Many carried signs with a variation on the ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan that became fashionable after the attack on the weekly newspaper: Je suis prof. The murder of Paty is seen as a direct attack on education.
On the Place de la République, the emotional crowd expressed the collective grief impressively: thousands of them sang the chanson in unison Adieu Monsieur Le Professeur.