PARIS — In the highly charged days since a school teacher was beheaded in a Paris suburb, French authorities have grasped at straws to show they are clamping down on radical Islam.
They conducted dozens of raids, shuttered a mosque and a few associations they say have connections to radical Islam, but even French President Emmanuel Macron says more needs to be done to address a national yearning to stamp out extremism.
“We stepped up actions over recent days,” Macron said Tuesday evening after presiding over a meeting of an inter-agency crisis group set up to fight radical Islam in the Paris area. And he promised more was coming: “It’s not about making new statements,” Macron said, “we know what we need to do.”
Macron announced the Cabinet will on Wednesday dissolve a pro-Hamas organization known as Cheikh Yassine, which he said was “directly involved” in the gruesome assassination of Samuel Paty, the eighth-grade teacher who was killed after he showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed during a class discussion on freedom of speech.
The teacher reportedly tried to be mindful of the sensitivity of the subject for some of his pupils by asking those who might be offended to either leave the class or look away, sparking the ire of one pupil’s father, among others.
After the disgruntled parent and several others posted a video on social media denouncing the teacher, calling for mobilization against him and mentioning the address of the school, an 18-year-old man, without apparent ties to the school, waited for Paty and beheaded him. On Tuesday, French media reported the investigation into the beheading revealed the assailant had been in touch with the father prior to the killing.
The assailant was of Chechen origin, and Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke Tuesday evening, according to the Elysée, which said Macron “wants to reinforce Franco-Russian cooperation in the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration.”
The attack is not the first beheading or the bloodiest terror attack France has suffered in recent years, but it has struck a nerve. Schools and teachers, though underpaid and under-equipped, hold a unique place in the collective imagination of the French, who see themselves as the torchbearers of enlightenment. It also goes to the heart of the unique French conception of freedom of speech — one that prides itself on offending and tackling all sacred cows.
Paty’s slaying has also backed Macron into a corner. Since he became president, he has been pressured by critics — mostly from the right and far right — to address the security, cultural and social challenges posed by radical Islam. The theme will feature heavily in the public debate until the presidential election in 2022, where Macron is likely to face off once more against Marine Le Pen, in a country that struggles with tackling the issue without reviving colonial wounds or tipping into Islamophobia and racism.
Searching for a new solution to an old problem
France has had a homegrown radical Islam problem for decades. It has caused problems for successive presidents and governments, which have struggled to reconcile the repression necessary to stamp it out with French laws, due process and freedom of speech. It culminated in 2015 with the bloodiest string of terror attacks in Europe: In January, assailants attacked satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and then in November, the Bataclan concert hall as well as cafés and restaurants in Paris.
The place of Islam in French society has been a lightning rod issue since former President Jacques Chirac passed a law banning French public service employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols, widely interpreted as a roundabout way of banning the Muslim headscarf.
Macron and his government say they took action early on in his presidency, setting up local counter-radical-Islam working groups, deploying more police in select areas while also investing in social, cultural and educational programs to provide disadvantaged children — often of immigrant descent and suffering discrimination — in poorer neighborhoods with the support they need to get ahead.
Macron’s advisers also say he has not shied away from addressing the problem of radical Islam in several speeches, including one honoring a slain officer killed in a terror attack in 2018, and a February speech in which he discussed the levers needed to fight radical Islam, including through greater means for schools. But that speech was quickly forgotten and overtaken by COVID-19.
A little over two weeks ago, Macron gave a landmark speech detailing his strategy to counter what he described as the ways radical Islam has infiltrated French society. He spoke of concrete actions such as training imams in France and curtailing homeschooling and the influence of foreign countries on France’s Muslim populations. These will be included in a draft bill in December, but his detractors say it was too little too late.
Right after Friday’s attack, Macron and his government did exactly what every previous government and president have done after a big attack: They attempted to reassure the public through a series of announcements. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced a big police sweep against certain individuals (10 people remain in custody) and ordered the shuttering of a mosque and the dissolution of other associations with ties to radical Islam.
Yet one question that has dogged authorities since Friday is why one of the people currently in police detention in connection with the killing of Paty, Abdelhakim Sefrioui — a co-founder of the Cheikh Yassine association — had not been brought to justice earlier. He has long been known in France for his extremist views and ties to radical Islam, and his clashes with other Muslim leaders who have denounced his positions.
France is also pushing for an EU-wide toughening of measures to tackle hate speech online and has long backed Brussels’ ongoing legislative efforts to take down terrorist content from social media.
On Tuesday, Europe Minister Clément Beaune discussed the effort with French ambassadors across the bloc, and European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said in response to a tweet by Beaune on the issue that the “EU Commission proposed in September 2018 new rules to delete terrorist content on the web. The Christchurch attacks and the murder of Samuel Paty show the urgency to adopt them. Let’s work relentlessly to do it.”
On Wednesday, Macron will award Paty the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor, and will lead a national tribute to him. It will take place at the Sorbonne University, a location chosen by Paty’s family.
“The Sorbonne is the symbolic monument of the spirit of enlightenment and of French cultural, literary and educational influence,” according to an Elysée official.