Pupils in schools across France on Friday paid tribute to Samuel Paty, a year after the teacher was beheaded by an extremist for showing his class cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.
Paty’s violent death sent shockwaves through France and beyond, and was seen as an attack on the core values drilled by teachers into generations of schoolchildren, including the separation of church and state and the right to blaspheme.
The 47-year-old was killed after leaving the middle school where he taught history and geography in the tranquil Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on the evening of October 16, 2020.
His killer, 18-year-old Chechen refugee Abdullakh Anzorov, claimed the attack as revenge for Paty showing his class the drawings in a lesson on free speech.
The government encouraged all French schools to commemorate the murder with a minute of silence, debates or the screening of documentaries on the freedom of speech.
“We will not forget Samuel Paty,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said Friday during a visit to a Paris high school.
“By naming rooms, schools, and other establishments after him, and by holding ceremonies like this one, we show those who would terrorise us and who would use fear to fight freedom, that we will use freedom to fight fear,” he said.
In Villeneuve-d’Ascq, near the northern city of Lille, high school students dedicated their civics class Friday morning to a discussion.
“What does freedom of expression mean to you?” history and geography teacher Anne-Sophie Branque asked her class of mostly 15-year olds.
“Do you feel free to express yourselves in daily life without hurting others? Do we have the right to blaspheme?”
Correcting one student who said that “Samuel Paty talked about the prophet in his class”, Branque said: “Make sure you get your facts right. He held a class on the freedom of expression using the Charlie Hebdo (satirical magazine) cartoons as an example.”
At the Batteries middle school in the southeastern city of Lyon one student, Corentin, said it was important for young people to talk freely without parental control.
“Some people can’t have this kind of debate at home, and so it’s not their opinion that counts, but that of their parents. It’s important to discuss so we can find out what we actually think,” he said.
Civics teacher, Clelia Mazzetti, asked the class for comments on her assertion “that you are allowed to criticise whatever you want”.
Elias, 14, replied that that question was “sensitive but important”, adding: “A year ago I was shocked that a teacher could be killed just for teaching. That’s a disgrace.”
His classmate Kylian said that, however, “you need to show a minimum of respect”, to which the teacher agreed: “You should not insult or slander anybody”.
It is “very difficult” to help children understand the events of October 16, 2020, Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal told Franceinfo radio, “but it’s important to tell children the truth”.
Upcoming tributes to the murdered teacher include a memorial plaque placed at the entrance of the French interior ministry in Paris, to be inaugurated on Saturday by Prime Minister Jean Castex, other government ministers, Paty’s parents and members of his family.
The family will meet with President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace later in the day.
Also on Saturday, a square facing the Sorbonne University in the capital’s Latin Quarter will be named after Samuel Paty in a ceremony that the mayor’s office said would be “simple and contemplative”.
Schools in at least three towns have already been named after Paty, including in the multi-ethnic eastern Paris suburb of Valenton.
Coming in the wake of other attacks blamed on Islamist extremists, it also triggered a new wave of debate over integration and immigration in France’s officially secular society as the country heads to 2022 presidential polls.