A Terror Attack on a Teacher Throws France into an International Conflict

A middle school teacher beheaded after a course on freedom of speech.

Samuel Paty was a beloved father and respected teacher at a middle school in Conflans-Saint-Honorine, a Paris suburb. He taught history, geography, and “moral and civic education,” a subsidiary course in French schools. According to his students, “Mr. Paty” was a good teacher, committed to his work.

On October 16, 2020, a radicalized 18-year-old, Abdouallakh Abouyezidovich Anzorov, violently attacked and beheaded the teacher.

A tweet from the French President honoring Samuel Paty’s life

The reason for this attack? Samuel Paty had given a lesson on freedom of speech within the framework of the course “civic and moral education,” whose aim is to think about the elements of a Democraty: freedoms and rights, social issues, and other subjects on which it’s common to have French students debate to practice critical thinking.

He asked his students to debate freedom of speech, showing cartoons from the magazine Charlie Hebdo. The cartoons staged the Muslim prophet, whom it is forbidden to draw in the Muslim religion. Charlie Hebdo had already been the victim of a terrorist attack in 2015, leading to the death of 12 persons.

The polemic that led to the attack

After Mr. Paty’s class, a schoolgirl’s father complained about the teacher on social media. Being Muslim, he knew that drawing a cartoon of the prophet Muhammed was blasphemous. In his opinion, these cartoons shouldn’t have been shown to his daughter in class, although the teacher advised students to look away or leave the class for a minute if they thought they might be offended. Samuel Paty also told the police that the man’s daughter was not present in class the day he showed the cartoons. The father was supported by a man, who we now know today as a salafo-jihadist activist, who encouraged him to call for a mobilization against Samuel Paty’s teaching.

Abdouallakh Abouyezidovich Anzorov was a young Russian refugee of Chechen origin. To this day, the police think he had no connection with the teacher, as he lived in Evreux, Normandy, 62 miles away from the school where Mr. Paty taught. He probably heard of the controversy on social media or through communication with other unidentified jihadists.

On October the 16th, Anzorov drove to the school where Samuel Paty worked. He waited in front of the middle school during the afternoon and bribed children to point out the teacher as he left his workplace. He followed him in a street where he violently stabbed and beheaded the 47-year-old teacher. The murderer immediately tweeted a terrorist revendication of his act. Police officers tried to arrest him in the aftermath but finally shot him dead after Anzarov attempted to attack them.

The French people organized many ceremonies to honor the life of Samuel Paty. During the national ceremony, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, reiterated that Samuel Paty was in his good right to talk Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons while showing them in class. He declared that religious caricatures wouldn’t become an offense in France any time soon. Some countries have condemned these comments.

Table of content:

  1. A conflict arose between France and several Muslim majority countries
  2. Blasphemy and freedom of speech in France
  3. What does the law say about caricature?
  4. France is a secular country, but it protects freedom of religion and worship

A conflict arose between France and several Muslim majority countries

The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, added fuel to the fire by calling on the French president to take mental health examinations” and shut down Turkish embassies in France.

The idea that lies behind the boycott implies that the French president would permit disrespect to Muslim believers, countries, and Islam in general.

Subsequently, many Muslim countries called to boycott French products, such as Turkey, Jordan, Iran, and Kuwait.

On Sunday, October 25, the French president tweeted in several languages:

A Tweet from the French President in response to the boycott

In a press release, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the people who “distort the positions defended by France in favor of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the refusal of any appeal to hatred. They also distort and instrumentalize for political ends the remarks made by the President of the Republic”.

The idea behind the boycott implies that the French president would permit disrespect to Muslim believers, countries, and Islam in general.

So, what is going on with the French president? Has he lost his mind? Can French people simply disrespect the Muslims and get away with it?
Hold on, the most important part of this article will answer all of these questions.

Blasphemy and freedom of speech in France

The cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammed were shown during a course on civic and moral education. It’s common to organize discussions about social issues during this course. When I was in high school, my teacher asked our class to debate gay marriage, embryos experiments, or even cannabis legalization.

The purpose is to place the students in a situation where they have to think about what they would do, as future citizens and voters, or maybe future politicians -who knows?- when asked about social issues. The teacher then helps students find information and build compelling arguments, whether for one side or the other. It’s also a course that aims to prevent fake news and build critical thinking.

In France, there exist no explicit right to draw cartoons of people or religious figures. However, it’s not forbidden, to this day, even if they are blasphemous.

What does the law say about caricature?

Jurisdictions consider the caricature -or provocative cartoon- style in itself as part of a satirical or humorous genre.

The satirical or humorous genre does not exclude the search for the goal pursued and the appreciation of its legitimacy and it is not excessive to claim, and to admit on occasion, the exercise of a right to disrespect and insolence, especially in political matters, since the jester fulfills an eminent and salutary social function and participates in his own way in the defense of freedoms.Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, February 16, 1993.

As you can see, French jurisdictions view provocative cartoons as elements that can participate in defense of freedoms. Especially when it comes to political figures, insolence fulfills a “salutary social function.”

But, as you understood, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were not of a political matter; they depicted a religious figure.

I found two problems with cartoons depicting religious figures:
1. People can feel offended by the drawings because of their blasphemous nature.
2. Cartoons can be used as propaganda instruments against an ethnic or religious group, as with the tags painted on stores run by Jews during WWII.

So the question is, is it allowed to draw cartoons of religious figures in France? And if it is, to which extent? Is French law islamophobic?

France is a secular country, but it protects freedom of religion and worship

Religious caricatures are not prohibited in France: they are framed within the limits of respect for freedom of worship and non-discrimination.

France is a secular State. The State does not intervene in religious matters and vice versa. Blasphemy used to be prohibited in France, but it was abolished in 1881 with a law on the freedom of the press. During medieval times, France was officially a Catholic country, but from the French Revolution in 1789, France has gradually stopped meddling in the Catholic Church's operations.

From there, public education progressively stepped away from religious dogmas. And in 1882, a law proclaimed the secularism of public education. The final “divorce” happened with the law of “Separation of the Church from the State” in 1905. From now on, the State guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of worship but does not recognize any State religion. France no longer participates in religious activities.

At the time blasphemy ceased to be incriminated, in 1881, France was experiencing a great secularization movement, which neither favored nor disadvantaged any religion.

The current French Constitution (from 1958) protects the freedom of worship:

Article 1
“France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.”

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, from 1789, is part of French constitutional texts. It declares:

Article 10
“No one may be disquieted for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law.”

France protects the freedom of worship, but it also protects the freedom of speech through its Constitution, as well as multiple International Conventions and laws.

However, for religious groups, drawing cartoons of religious figures can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect towards their religion.

Here, what is at stake are two freedoms and rights: the freedom of speech and the right to respect for one’s beliefs. As the legal scholar Camille Viennot stated: “those are essential freedoms, protected by law, constitutional and conventional norms.”
As for all freedoms and rights, judges have one challenging job: weigh them against each other and protect both as much as possible.

French law does not protect beliefs, it protects believers.

Even if blasphemy hasn’t been incriminated since 1881, the freedom of expression isn’t limitless. In France, it is forbidden to insult followers of a religion, call to hatred, violence, discrimination, or apologizing for crimes.

In particular, there is an offense for the public insult against an identifiable person or group of persons because of their religious beliefs. It was invented through the very same law on freedom of the press. It is different from blasphemy because it's the religious group that is targeted, not the beliefs.

For example, on February 14, 2006, the Court of Cassation (aka French Supreme Court) ruled that a campaign for condoms depicting a nun with the trade-mark “Holy condom protect us” did not exceed the limits of freedom of expression.

From the Catholics’ point of view, it was blasphemous. But according to French law, it could not be punished because it did not directly affect the Catholics. In other words, French law does not protect beliefs; it protects believers.

If the religious caricatures of Charlie Hebdo were not condemned, it’s because they were not intended to insult people of the Muslim faith.

According to Camille Viennot, this explains the argumentation of a Parisian court, in 2007, about the cartoons of Muhammad:

“Whereas in France, a secular and pluralist society, respect for all beliefs goes hand in hand with the freedom to criticize religions whatever they are and with [the freedom] to represent subjects with objects of religious veneration; that blasphemy which outrages divinity or religion is not repressed, unlike insult, since it constitutes a personal and direct attack directed against a person or a group of persons because of their religious affiliation”.

This distinction is important because France has repeatedly condemned statements by public figures who, under cover of humor, committed hate speech against members of religious denominations.

For example, the standup comedian Dieudonné has been convicted on several occasions for anti-Semitic statements in his comedy shows.

There are many reasons why cartoons could be condemned in France, whether they are religious or not. To simplify: in the event of insulting a person or a community, incitement to hatred, and crime apology, cartoons would be sanctioned by French law.

France does not defend any religion. However, it guarantees freedom of worship and protection of believers. The State does not wish to confuse the Law with religious morals and does not criminalize blasphemy in itself. On the other hand, freedom of expression is not without limits, and it is not impossible -it has even frequently happened- for cartoons to be condemned when insulting believers, hateful, or supporting crimes. In this case, perpetrators can be convicted in criminal proceedings and pay damages to those concerned.

French writer, jurist, youth worker.

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