French PM threatens punishment for pupils who failed to comply with minute's silence for murdered teacher

David Chazan
·3-min read
Pupils from an elementary school in Bischwiller, eastern France, respect the minute's silence  - PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images
Pupils from an elementary school in Bischwiller, eastern France, respect the minute's silence - PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images

French schoolchildren observed a minute’s silence on Monday in honour of Samuel Paty, the teacher beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, under threat of punishment from the prime minister.  

France is on maximum security alert following Mr Paty’s murder last month and the killing of three people in a frenzied knife attack in a Nice church by a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant on Thursday. Mr Paty was killed after showing his class cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

Jean Castex, the prime minister, warned that pupils who refused to take part in the tribute to Mr Paty would face punishment. He did not specify what the punishment would be.

A number of children in mainly Muslim areas declined to observe a minute’s silence after 12 people were massacred in 2015 at the office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. 

The latest Islamist attacks have again laid bare deep divisions in France. Some Muslims see its secular laws and the separation of religion and state as a means of suppressing their religious practices.

French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Samuel Paty - AP Photo/Francois Mori
French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Samuel Paty - AP Photo/Francois Mori

Teachers across France read out a letter by the 19th century Socialist politician Jean Jaurès, setting out the role of schools in nurturing young citizens. “They must know what a free democracy is, what rights it confers on them, what duties the sovereignty of the nation imposes on them," Jaurès wrote.

Frédéric, a teacher in a northern Paris suburb, told the Telegraph: “I’m not sure how much of Jaurès’s message got through to my class. Some believe that talk of freedom of expression is just a cover for insulting their religion and it’s hard to convince them that it isn’t. These are teenagers who feel alienated in the country where they were born. But they did observe the silence.”

Frédéric, who declined to be identified by his surname, said many pupils were angry that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, described Islam as “a religion in crisis all over the world” in a speech before Mr Paty’s killing.

"The idea of terrorism is to create hatred," Mr Macron wrote in a message to schoolchildren on social media on Monday. "We will pull through this together.”

Tens of thousands of protesters joined anti-Macron rallies in Bangladesh and Indonesia on Monday and renewed calls for a boycott of French goods. Similar protests took place in Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan and India during the weekend.

On Sunday, however, French Muslims attended masses at churches across France as a gesture of solidarity with Christians and unity against terrorism. Some held white roses symbolising peace.

Separately, the 21-year-old Tunisian migrant who killed three people in a Nice church last week attended dawn prayers at a local mosque just hours before his knife rampage, it emerged on Monday.

Police pieced together Brahim Aouissaoui’s movements from CCTV footage, sources close to the investigation said. 

Detectives have questioned Ramzan Magamadov, the imam of the mosque in the city centre. He said he was shocked to learn from police that the killer had prayed there. Mr Magamadov, who was not present at the morning prayers before 6 am on Thursday, said he had asked those who attended whether they recalled seeing Aouissaoui, but none did. “There may well have been people we don’t know as the mosque welcomes all communities: Chechens, North Africans, Comorians and Africans.”

Investigators are trying to establish whether Aouissaoui received orders from a jihadist group or was aided by accomplices. He has not been questioned in detail as he is in critical condition in hospital after being shot eight times by police.