“We are all Samuel. We are teachers too. And we don’t want to be killed just for doing our job,” a protester said on Sunday as thousands gathered in Place de République in Paris, in solidarity with Samuel Paty, the teacher who was beheaded in a northwestern Paris suburb on Friday.
A sea of banners reading #jesuisprof (I am a teacher), #jesuissamuel (I am Samuel) filled Place de Republique in the heart of Paris on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
“We are all Samuel. We are teachers too. And we don’t want to be killed just for doing our job,” said Hélène, who came to the rally with her colleague Marie. “We’ve travelled in from the suburbs. Where we live is not very different from where Samuel lived. We refuse to be afraid to go to work.”
The beheading of history and civics teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb on Friday sparked outrage across France and evoked memories of the deadly wave of Islamist violence in 2015 that began after caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed were published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
“A teacher was killed for doing his job,” said Dominique Sopo, president of SOS Racisme, speaking out to a decidedly still and solemn crowd packed into every corner of this huge square.
Sopo was the first of a number of speakers, and was followed by leaders from teachers’ and students’ unions. Their message was united. “Shock and sadness is what we feel. This behaviour cannot be accepted in France, or anywhere.”
More than 1.5 million people gathered in Place de République in 2015 to protest the deadly attack on the magazine’s office and the hashtag #jesuisCharlie (I am Charlie) went viral around the world.
Rallies honouring Paty were also held in other cities across France on Sunday, including in Lyon, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Marseille and Bourdeaux.
“It enraged me. I felt first shock and then rage. And of course sadness. How will we live now?” asked Yasmina from east of Paris, speaking with FRANCE 24. “The government must act now. This cannot continue. Paty taught the message of the republic, he taught his students to understand the meaning of liberty. He was killed for that.”
“I always buy Charlie Hebdo, we must have freedom of expression,” said Marie-Christine, another teacher. “But I won’t talk about this attack with my students because I know they might make remarks, provocations.”
The crowd comprised a mix of older people and families. There was some cheering, some applauding, some crying and some moving singing, as a small group began singing “Adieu Monsieur Le Professeur” and it gently rippled out across the crowd, an ode to a departed teacher. There was no aggression, only a genuine sense of sadness and frustration.
When Sopo called for a minute’s silence, it extended long past 60 seconds. No one was willing to break this moment of respect to Paty. The silence was followed by deafening applause.
“He (Paty) could have been one of my students, I completely identify with him,” said Natalie, who trains young teachers. “I was also here in 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but today there unfortunately seems to be less people. If I hadn’t come, I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in the mirror, I had to come this afternoon. This is a teacher who was only doing his job.”
Some lay the responsibility on the French government. “The government has been too timid on the issue of Islamism. It’s a problem that they find hard to accept, but you have to call it as it is. You can’t mix everything up. You can’t use religion to carry out attacks,” said William, a pensioner.
“Everyone has gathered here today to simply be together. This act was both unbelievable and completely believable. We were shocked and didn’t expect it and yet it was almost inevitable,” Marc, a sound engineer, told FRANCE 24.
“There is no simple answer, the government cannot just react to one event, they must really make profound changes. They must act now. They cannot wait for many events like last Friday,” he added.
Tribute to murdered French teacher: ‘Democracy is being attacked by fanatics’
Others felt it was a call to speak up about their responsibility as teachers, that they had to continue to teach and be free to teach as necessary. “As a kindergarten teacher, I came here to defend my mission to educate, to sharpen the critical thinking skills of my pupils,” said Elodie. “This makes me want to teach even more. There will be a before and after this horrible event.”
“This was a barbaric and brutal act attacking liberty. And liberty is one of the cornerstones of French identity. Liberté, fraternité, egalité: They make us who we are as French people. We cannot accept them to be challenged in this way,” said Sara, a fellow teacher, who travelled in for the rally from Fontenay-sous-Bois, a commune east of Paris.
Many groups called for this rally, including SOS Racisme, Amnesty International France, student unions and labour unions.
Paty had been the target of online threats for showing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. He was teaching a moral and civic instruction class on October 5 at his school at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris. These classes are obligatory and cover subjects including secularism, the death penalty and abortion.
“I am an Algerian Muslim and I refuse to accept this act of terrorism. And that is what it is, an act of terrorism,” another protester, Amal, told FRANCE 24. “I practise my religion but it is between God and me. This man (the attacker) does not represent me, he does not represent my religion, he represents nobody.”
Friday’s attack was the second such incident since a trial started last month over the January 2015 massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, which had published caricatures of the prophet that unleashed a wave of anger across the Islamic world.
In the run-up to the trial, the magazine republished the cartoons shortly thereafter, a young Pakistani man wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside Charlie Hebdo’s former Paris offices.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said a national tribute would be held for Paty on Wednesday.