Teacher beheaded in Paris suburb after showing cartoons of Prophet Mohammed to class

David Chazan
·7 min read
Teacher beheaded in Paris suburb after showing cartoons of Prophet Mohammed to class
Teacher beheaded in Paris suburb after showing cartoons of Prophet Mohammed to class
Victim of Paris terror attack, teacher Samuel Paty
Victim of Paris terror attack, teacher Samuel Paty

A history teacher who showed his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in class was beheaded near his school in a Paris suburb on Friday by a suspected Islamist terrorist who shouted “Allahu Akbar", police said.

Alerted by local residents, police confronted and shot dead a man armed with a kitchen knife and an air gun who refused to drop his weapons and surrender, and threatened them.

Minutes later, officers found the body of 47-year-old Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher.

A bomb disposal unit was called in to check whether the presumed assailant was wearing a suicide vest or belt.

Witnesses told police they heard the assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar” [‘God is the greatest’ in Arabic], police sources said.

The teacher had received death threats after giving a class on freedom of expression, during which he showed pupils the controversial cartoons, a police source said. The presumed killer was reported to be an 18-year-old Chechen, the sources said. 

The gruesome killing in broad daylight, in the street outside the school where the teacher worked in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, north-west of Paris, was witnessed by passers-by who raised the alarm. French media named the teacher as Samuel P.

Sophie Vénétitay, deputy head of the SNES-FSU teachers’ union, said: "He was murdered because he was doing his job, namely teaching critical thought." She said the victim was a history and geography teacher who was in charge of "moral and civic education”.

"In that capacity, he gave a lesson on the freedom of expression with the Mohammed cartoons," she said.

Thibault Humbert, mayor of the nearby suburb of Éragny-sur-Oise, said: “This was an exceptionally violent and horrifying attack. The police must be commended for intervening with such speed.”

Police arrived at the murder scene within minutes, but came across the suspect,who was fleeing towards Eragny-sur Oise, about two miles away, before they discovered the body. 

“The body of the decapitated man was found around 5.30 pm,” a source close to the investigation said. “The presumed attacker was waving his gun and shouting threats at officers before he was shot dead.”

Police sealed off the area and urged residents to stay at home while they investigated whether other potential attackers or accomplices may still be at large.

The investigation is being directed by specialised anti-terrorism prosecutors. 

“There are still questions about whether the killer was radicalised or whether there might have been another motive, but the investigation will clarify this and the working hypothesis is terrorism,” the source said. 

French President Emmanuel Macron arriving at the scene of the stabbing attack - Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron arriving at the scene of the stabbing attack - Reuters

An investigation has been launched into “murder in relation to a terrorist group” and “membership of a criminal terrorist group”.

The presumed killer, a Moscow-born ethnic Chechen, was not on France’s terror watch list but was known to police for petty crime.

Charlie Hebdo expressed “horror and revulsion that a teacher doing his job was murdered by a religious fanatic”.

A family filed a legal complaint against the teacher last week  after he showed the cartoons in class.

President Emmanuel Macron and several government ministers visited the scene after a crisis meeting at the interior ministry.

Speaking from the scene on Friday night, President Macron said: "One of our fellow citizens was murdered because he taught, he taught his pupils freedom of expression, to believe or not to believe. Our compatriot was the victim of a blatant Islamist terrorist attack."

He expressed his condolences to the family, friends and the secondary school where the victim taught.

Mr Macron added: "It was no coincidence that the terrorist killed a teacher because he wanted to kill the Republic and its values. The Enlightenment, (is) the possibility to make our children, wherever they come from, whatever they believe in, whether they believe or not, whatever their religion, to turn them into free citizens.

"This battle is ours and it is existential," he said. "They will not pass," said Mr Macron. "Obscurantism and the violence that goes with it will not win. They will not divide us. That's what they seek and we must stand together."

Speaking at the scene, President Macron urged his compatriots to defend the values of the Enlightenment - GETTY IMAGES
Speaking at the scene, President Macron urged his compatriots to defend the values of the Enlightenment - GETTY IMAGES

In emotional scenes, MPs in France's National Assembly all stood up to "salute the memory" of the slain teacher and denounced what they called "an abominable attack".

Jean-Michel Blanquer, France's education minister, said: "It is the French Republic that is under attack."  

Other politicians from across the board expressed horror at the killing.

Xavier Bertrand, centre-Right president of the Hauts-de-France region, said: "Islamist barbarity has taken aim at one of the symbols of the Republic: school. The terrorists want to shut us up, to bring us to our knees. They should know that we will not bend, they will never forbid us to read, write, draw, think, teach."

Marine Le Pen of the far-Right National Rally, said: "A teacher beheaded for showing Charlie Hebdo caricatures. We are in France with this level of unbearable barbarity. Islamism is waging war on us: it is by force that we must drive them out of our country."

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of the far-Left party, Unbowed France, said: "Horrible crime in Conflans! In fact, the assassin takes himself for the god that he claims he follows. He is sullying religion. And he is inflicting on us all the hell of having to live with murderers like him."

French police are treating the attack as terror - AFP
French police are treating the attack as terror - AFP

Parents and pupils said they were deeply shocked by the murder.

"It's the countryside here. Nothing happens," said Nordine Chaouadi, whose 13-year-old son "took lessons with this teacher."

"He's scared, he's in a bad way," he said.

Speaking of the teacher, he said: "At no time did he seek to lack respect, that's what my son told me."

He said that last week, the teacher had invited Muslim pupils to leave the classroom to not be shocked by a caricature of a nude Mohammed. The incident sparked controversy among some parents," said Mr Chaouadi, a Muslim himself.

"I feel terrible, he said. It's crazy, incredible. All the prophets, even Jesus, have been insulted for 2,000 years. It's not new. I'm lost and can't believe it's happened."

The killing came at a highly sensitive time in France after two people were seriously injured in a knife attack last month outside the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

A Pakistani man who entered France under a false identity confessed to stabbing two journalists who work for a video production company in the same building as Charlie Hebdo’s former office.

He told investigators he had been angered by the newspaper’s decision to republish controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to coincide with the ongoing trial of 14 alleged accomplices of two Islamists who massacred 12 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices five years ago. The attacker said he had not known that the weekly moved to secret new premises after the attack in January 2015.

Police at the site of the September 2020 attack near the former offices of the satirical paper, Charlie Hebdo - AP
Police at the site of the September 2020 attack near the former offices of the satirical paper, Charlie Hebdo - AP

Ten months later, France suffered its deadliest terrorist attack when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks in Paris claimed by Islamic State. 

Suicide bombers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles attacked the Bataclan music venue, near cafés and restaurants, and the national stadium.

In July 2016, 86 people were killed and more than 400 injured when a Tunisian immigrant rammed a 19-tonne lorry into crowds of families watching a Bastille Day fireworks display on the seafront in Nice.

Later that month, two Islamist terrorists murdered an 86-year-old Roman Catholic priest during a church service in Normandy. There have been further attacks since. 

The 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the first in the series of Islamist attacks in France, was carried out by two Paris-born brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, who were shot dead by police two days later.

Charlie Hebdo now produces its magazine from a secret location and its staff are guarded by police 24 hours a day.