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A teacher is beheaded, and France's war over secularism, freedom of speech and religious equality reignites

France was irrevocably changed by the Paris terror attacks of January 2015. Three days of violence began with a massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had previously published controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. They ended with a siege at a kosher supermarket.

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Zamira Rahim, Pierre Bairin
Melissa Bell, CNN
CNN — France was irrevocably changed by the Paris terror attacks of January 2015. Three days of violence began with a massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had previously published controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. They ended with a siege at a kosher supermarket.

Seventeen people were killed and long-simmering tensions over secularism, Islamism and religious equality erupted into public view. Anti-immigration rhetoric targeting France's Muslim communities also became increasingly common. Since then, these divides have only worsened with further attacks and the subsequent fallout.

Last Friday, teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in a terrorist attack in the northern Paris suburb of Éragny after displaying the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his students during a lesson, anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said.

The 47-year-old's murder has now reignited the long-simmering conflict over secularism in France.

In early October, a matter of days before Paty's murder, French President Emmanuel Macron said: "There is in this radical Islamism, a methodical organization to contravene the laws of the Republic and create a parallel order, to erect other values." Macron was speaking in Les Mureaux, a north-western suburb of Paris where officials have been working with the Muslim community to combat Islamist extremism.

Paty's death was met with horror across France.

Macron paid tribute to the teacher, whom he said was "killed because he was teaching students freedom of speech, the freedom to believe and not believe."

Thousands gathered in and around the Place de la République in Paris on Sunday, to celebrate free speech and decry violence. Similar emotional demonstrations were held across the nation.

A national memorial event for Paty will be held on Wednesday evening in Paris.

Freedom of expression

Paty, who was 47, taught history and geography at the Collège du Bois d'Aulne. He used the cartoons in a class on freedom of expression -- a core tenet of French life.

He had warned Muslim students about the images in advance, offering them the chance to opt out of the session. Even so, the lesson sparked controversy in the weeks preceding his death, with one parent at the school lobbying for Paty's dismissal.

On October 7, that parent posted a video on Facebook calling for action against the teacher. The man publicly identified Paty, and demanded that the school dismiss him, according to France's national anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-François Ricard.

A day later, the man filed a complaint about the class; Paty, in turn, filed a complaint for defamation. On October 12, the parent published a second video on YouTube targeting the teacher.

The man who killed Paty was a refugee of Chechen origin, identified as Abdoullakh Abouyezidovitch A. The 18-year-old approached students outside the school and asked them to point out his victim, Ricard said in a statement on October 17. Abouyezidovitch attacked Paty as he walked home after work. The teenager was not known to intelligence services.

Before police gunned him down later on Friday, Abouyezidovitch posted on Twitter that he had executed one of Macron's "dogs of hell," who had belittled the revered prophet, Ricard said.

The love of laïcité

Secularism -- known as "laïcité" in French -- is deeply ingrained in French culture, with many believing that nothing -- not even one's religion -- should come before national identity. Yet for those with a strong faith, this tenet is a complex one to hold.

"It's an activist secularism," Catherine Fieschi, director of the Global Policy Institute at London's Queen Mary University, told CNN.

"Laïcité is a tenet of the Republic, it's cross-party. This cuts across the spectrum -- leftist social democrats are just as against religion in the public realm as [those on the right.]"

Fieschi said secularist laws had been intensifying since 1989. She believes Macron's decision to crack down on extremists may be a positive move for most French Muslims, as the government is opting to focus on extremist organizations and hate speech, rather than community integration.

"Macron has moved increasingly onto this territory since the summer," she said. "He has shifted to talking about separatism, not integration. They're not attacking the communities but these [...] vectors of hate, that are seeking to undermine these communities. They're not mentioning integration, that's not the conversation.

"I think we might actually see this as a turning point," Fieschi added, explaining that the fact that Abouyezidovitch "is not from a former French colony ... that in many respects ... gives the opportunity to French Muslim citizens to feel they're not being targeted by the government."

Crackdown on radical Islamism

Paty's killing came just weeks after two people were seriously injured in a knife attack near Charlie Hebdo's former offices.

The French state responded to Paty's murder with bullish measures. Judicial sources told CNN that 15 people were being questioned over the attack. Those in custody include the parent who called for the teacher's dismissal and members of the attacker's family. Students suspected of helping the perpetrator identify Paty are also in custody, the sources said.

Macron and his government have been quick to declare a crackdown on extremist Islamists.

On Tuesday, the President said French citizens -- especially Muslim citizens -- needed to be protected from radical Islamism, which aims "to turn some of our citizens against the Republic, because of their religion. We will not let this happen."

"What our citizens expect from us are actions," Macron said. "And these actions will be intensified."

He said dozens of measures had already been taken against organizations and individuals "pushing forward a radical Islamist project, in other words, an ideology aimed at destroying the Republic," adding that the investigation into Paty's beheading would show that some of these organizations "were involved in Friday's attacks."

Further actions will be announced in the coming days and weeks, Macron said.

On Monday, France's interior minister Gérald Darmanin said more than 80 online hate messages would be investigated in the wake of Paty's murder, adding that there would "not be a moment of respite for the enemies of our Republic."

Darmanin said on Twitter that 51 organizations and non-profit groups would be visited by state services this week, and several would be dissolved. The minister is also working to close a mosque in the northern suburbs of Paris. Darmanin said its director was one of those who re-posted a message calling for Paty to be threatened. The post also included the school's location.

Religious discrimination

France is home to more than 5 million Muslims -- the overwhelming majority are not radical Islamists, but many are nonetheless affected by the country's secular legislation.

A series of French laws have curbed how Muslim women dress over the last two decades.

In 2004 hijabs were banned along with Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in public schools. Burqas and niqabs, which cover the face, were banned in 2011.

Legislators who supported the law, including then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, said the garments threatened French secularism and were debasing to women.

In a 2019 survey by pollsters Ifop, more than 40% of French Muslims questioned said they had experienced religious discrimination in the country at least once in their lives. That same month, thousands marched in an anti-Islamophobia demonstration through Paris, according to Reuters.

The task Macron now faces is one of colossal importance.

He is a year and a half away from an election, in which his main opponent is likely to be Marine Le Pen, the far right politician who, in the aftermath of Paty's death, called for the "eradication of Islamism" in France.

Macron has combined his moves against radical Islamism with public messages of unity.

"We shall stand together without any distinction, because we are first and foremost citizens united by the same values, a history, a destiny," he said on October 16.

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