Crowds gathered throughout France on Sunday to pay tribute to Samuel Paty, the 47-year-old history teacher who was beheaded after he reportedly showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a civics lesson.
Rallies formed in cities including Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Marseille and Bordeaux. Thousands convened in Paris’ Place de la République, which Huffington Post France reported was filled at times with the sounds of applause, the French national anthem and a solemn minute of silence.
Attendees at demonstrations across the country carried signs reading “I am Samuel” and “I am a teacher,” according to the BBC.
France is reeling from the killing, which took place in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on Friday.
According to police, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee attacked Paty near the school and cut his throat, before posting a graphic claim of responsibility on social media. Police fatally shot the attacker after he acted threateningly and did not respond to commands to disarm, authorities said.
Shortly after, President Emmanuel Macron characterized it as “an Islamist terrorist attack” and said the teacher was targeted because he “taught freedom of expression.”
Jean-François Ricard, France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor, said Paty had received death threats after he allegedly showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class about freedom of speech.
The Muslim faith prohibits depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The BBC reported that Paty advised Muslim students in the class to look away if they anticipated being offended.
Paty’s lesson prompted some angry reactions, with one parent accusing Paty of showing depictions of the prophet naked, the BBC said. That parent lodged a formal complaint and called on people to protest at the school.
The lesson was related to the ongoing trial over the 2015 attack at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which came under fire for its caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamist extremists killed 12 people, and 14 defendants stand accused of giving the gunmen logistical support.
And late last month, after the trial had begun, two people were wounded in an attack near the magazine’s former offices that authorities investigated as a possible terrorist act.
Ricard’s office said on Friday that a terror investigation had been opened and authorities had arrested nine suspects, including several members of the attacker’s family. The number of people detained rose to 11 on Sunday, according to Reuters.
French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer on Saturday stressed the need for unity within the education community and more generally, urging French people to show pride in their values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
“Secularism is key, it allows us to have differences, to believe or not to believe, and to respect each other,” Blanquer said. “And today it is clear to everyone that it is this that has been attacked.”
Marlène Schiappa, France’s junior minister for citizenship, condemned the attack in a series of tweets and said she would attend Sunday’s demonstration “in support of teachers, secularism, freedom of expression and against Islamism.”
Des milliers de personnes sont rassemblées à Paris place de la République pour rendre hommage à Samuel Paty, le professeur d’histoire décapité vendredi dans les Yvelines@AdamMimi, E.Henry, @Pepiwack #AFP pic.twitter.com/0vha1J5Et3
— Agence France-Presse (@afpfr) October 18, 2020
Many of the attendees were teachers themselves, according to France 24, and spoke of being shocked and saddened by the killing.
“As a kindergarten teacher, I came here to defend my mission to educate, to sharpen the critical thinking skills of my pupils,” said one. “This makes me want to teach even more. There will be a before and after this horrible event.”
Another protester told the network that people had gathered “to simply be together.”
French Prime Minister Jean Castex and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo were among the thousands of demonstrators in Paris on Sunday. Both shared messages of strength and support on social media.
“You will not divide us,” Castex tweeted alongside a video of crowds singing the national anthem. “We are France!”
Vous ne nous faites pas peur.
Nous n’avons pas peur.
Vous ne nous diviserez pas.
Nous sommes la France ! pic.twitter.com/GjUQo9AePa
— Jean Castex (@JeanCASTEX) October 18, 2020
Outrage and sympathy have also poured in from outside of the country.
The secretary general of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the attack on Sunday, reiterating that it rejects “all forms of extremism, radicalization and terrorism for any reason or motive.”
And during a campaign rally in Wisconsin on Saturday night, President Trump expressed his condolences to Macron for what he called a “vicious, vicious Islamic terrorist attack.”
Reuters reports a national tribute to Paty will be held in France on Wednesday.