PARIS (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron has denounced what he called an “Islamist terrorist attack” on a history professor beheaded on Friday in a Paris suburb, urging the nation to unite against extremism.
The teacher had discussed the cartoons of the prophet of Islam Muhammad with his class, authorities said. The suspected attacker was shot dead by police after Friday’s beheading.
The French anti-terrorism prosecutor has opened an investigation into a suspected murder for terrorist purposes, the prosecution said.
Macron visited the school where the teacher worked in the town of Conflans-Saint-Honorine and met the staff after the murder. An Associated Press reporter saw three ambulances arrive at the scene, heavily armed police surrounding the area and police vans lining the leafy streets nearby.
“One of our compatriots was murdered today because he taught… freedom of speech, the freedom to believe or not to believe,” Macron said.
He said the attack shouldn’t divide France because that’s what the extremists want. “We must all be together as citizens,” he said.
The teacher’s horrific murder took place in the town of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine while the suspect was killed by police near Eragny.
A police official said the suspect, armed with a knife and an airsoft gun – which shoots plastic pellets – was shot dead about 600 meters (yards) from where the teacher was killed after failing to respond to orders to give up, and acted threateningly.
The teacher had received threats after he opened a discussion “for a debate” on the cartoons about 10 days ago, the police official told The Associated Press. A student’s parent had lodged a complaint against the teacher, another police official said, adding that the alleged killer did not have children in school. The identity of the suspect has not been made public.
The identity of the suspect has not been made public. French media reported that the suspect was an 18-year-old Chechen, born in Moscow. This information could not be confirmed immediately.
The two officials could not be named as they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigations.
France has offered asylum to many Chechens since the Russian military waged war against Islamist separatists in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Chechen communities are scattered throughout France.
France has seen occasional violence involving its Chechen community in recent months, in the Dijon region, in the Mediterranean city of Nice and in the city of Saint-Dizier, in the west, which is said to be linked to local criminal activities.
The attack came as Macron pushes for a new law against what he calls domestic ‘separatism’, including by Islamic radicals accused of indoctrinating vulnerable people through homeschools, extremist preaching and other activities.
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with up to 5 million members, and Islam is the country’s second largest religion.
“We didn’t see it coming,” Conflans resident Remi Tell told CNews television. He described the city as peaceful.
It was the second terrorism-related incident since the opening of an ongoing trial over the January 2015 newsroom massacre at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo after the publication of cartoons of the Prophet of Islam.
At the start of the trial, the newspaper republished cartoons of the prophet to emphasize the right to free speech. Exactly three weeks ago, a young Pakistani man was arrested after stabbing two people outside the newspaper’s former offices with non-fatal injuries. The 18-year-old told police he was shocked by the publication of the cartoons.
The incident came as Macron’s government is working on a bill to tackle radical Islamists who authorities say are creating a parallel society outside the values of the French Republic.
Michel Euler in Conflans-Saint-Honorine and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Lyon contributed to this report.