A national commemoration takes place Wednesday in honor of Paty, who died in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine.
In some ways, the outpouring of shock and heartbreak is a repeat of nearly six years ago, when millions of pencil-wielding protesters defended free speech, following terrorist attacks on offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine.
“Freedom of expression is a cardinal value of our identity”, declared Prime Minister Jean Castex Sunday Newspaper weekly, while speakers at Sunday’s rallies warned of hate versus hate.
Using the slogan “Je suis Charlie” after the January 2015 terrorist attacks, Castex added: “I am more Charlie than ever.”
But despite calls for national unity after this second terrorist attack in less than a month, the moment is also marked by division and criticism over the government’s response to radical Islam.
It also comes amid – and in part shapes – the country’s very different battle against another crisis, in the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s them or us”, titled Point magazine in an editorial on the murder, while the The Telegram wrote that Friday’s attack “reminds us of how threatened our French model of education and separation of church and state is.”
Cartoons of Prophet Muhammad
Nearly a dozen people are being held for questioning over Paty’s murder, which took place on his way home from class. These include the family of the suspect, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee identified by authorities as Abdullakh A., who was shot by police shortly after he allegedly stabbed and beheaded his victim.
Posting an image of Paty on Twitter after killing him, the alleged assailant also left a threatening message for President Emmanuel Macron. The Reuters news agency reports that Twitter quickly deleted the post, claiming the account was suspended because it violated company policy.
The incident comes less than a month after a Pakistani immigrant stabbed two people outside Charlie HebdoThe old Parisian headquarters. In both cases, the suspects appeared to strike back at the cartoons from the Prophet Muhammad post, which originally inspired the January 2015 terror attack.
And it is supported by an ongoing trial in Paris over these Charlie Hebdo strikes.
In Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, about thirty kilometers from Paris, bouquets of flowers were piled up in front of the shuttered school of Paty. Residents paid tribute to a teacher who many described as kind but strict. Some call Paty a “martyr”.
“We are in shock,” Sophie Venetitay, a representative of the teachers’ union, told France Info radio. “It is the school as a whole that is attacked for wanting to open minds.”
Free expression on the line?
The teacher’s murder came after showing students the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson on free speech. It was not the first time, the students say, and they say the teacher informed Muslims in the class that they were free to leave, warning that they might find the images shocking.
But some parents were not happy. According to reports, one father, in particular, posted his complaints on social media, gaining the support of a well-known Islamist, Abdelhakim Sefrioui.
According to Sunday Newspaper, the authorities considered Sefrioui an agitator but not dangerous. They expected possible protests against the teacher, but never violent reprisals.
Many questions remain, but investigators have yet to find direct links between the Chechen suspect, who lived in Normandy, and the school in the Paris region.
Macron chaired a defense meeting on Sunday to think about tougher measures against extremism. Macron’s ruling party On the Move is also preparing new anti-“separatism” legislation that largely targets radical Islam.
The president is already battling negative criticism of his response to the coronavirus. Critics describe the government’s latest action against extremism as equally disappointing.
Responding to Macron’s recent remarks that extremists would never win, far-right leader Marine Le Pen replied on Twitter: “They are already there – including in our schools!”
“Big speeches must give way to big decisions,” said center-right Republicans leader Christian Jacob, referring to Macron’s penchant for soaring speech.
For their part, leaders of France’s Muslim community, the largest in Western Europe, fear the latest attack will intensify anti-Muslim sentiment which they say has intensified in recent years.
“I am devastated by this indescribable act in the name of a religion which has nothing to do with it”, declared the rector of the mosque of Bordeaux Tareq Oubrou on the French radio, adding that the Muslim community of the country was ” doubly affected, as citizens and Muslims ”.