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Slain teacher Samuel Paty's coworkers grapple with role of ex-pupils in attack

By RFI
Europe  AFP  JEFF PACHOUD
NOV 29, 2023 LISTEN
© AFP / JEFF PACHOUD

As six teenagers go on trial for allegedly helping to incite the murder of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded near Paris three years ago, 13 of his colleagues are watching the case from the courtroom. They told RFI why it was important for them to try to understand what their former pupils had done.

"We're ready to face this moment now because we've been waiting for it," one of the group, who didn't want to use her name, told RFI's Victor Cariou outside the Paris juvenile court.

"It's an important moment for us. We need to get through this stage in order to move forward in our lives."

Reliable information has been hard to come by in the three years since Paty was stabbed and beheaded near the Bois d'Aulne secondary school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, his former coworker said. 

Attending the closed-door trial, which the teachers had to get special permission to do, is their chance finally to hear how the pupils accused of helping incite the murder explain themselves.

"We know it's going to be complicated, but we've been warned," the same teacher said. "We're all together, so it's easier to bear."

Two trials

The trial, which began on Monday, is the first of two that aim to hold to account both children and adults who allegedly played a role in the October 2020 attack on Paty.

The perpetrator, 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov of Chechnya in Russia, was shot dead by police at the scene. 

He acted after seeing reports on social media that Paty had shown cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to his class during a discussion about France's free speech laws.

Adults accused of posting those reports, as well as others said to have helped Anzorov buy a weapon and travel to Paty's school, will be tried separately next November. 

Quest to understand 

One of the teenagers currently on trial, who was 13 three years ago, is accused of spreading misinformation about Paty's actions.

The five others, aged 14 and 15 at the time, are alleged to have pointed Paty out to Anzorov in exchange for money. 

The students say they didn't realise Paty's life was in danger and never intended to contribute to murder. 

Finding out that pupils were under investigation for identifying Paty to his attacker was "an extremely brutal breach of trust", the lawyer representing the group of teachers, Antoine Casubolo-Ferro, told RFI. 

"We're here to understand. To understand not just through what the press tells us, but through everything they have to say about each other," he said. 

The teachers also felt a responsibility to attend the trial for Paty's sake, according to Casubolo-Ferro. 

"By being present they bear witness for all the teachers of France, and all the teachers of Bois d'Aulne school," he said.

"And they're also testifying to who Samuel Paty was: one of their own."

Trauma

Some of his colleagues have coped with the trauma of his killing by closing ranks, they told RFI

"From the morning after the attack, I've been back to the school every day," one said.

"We felt like only our colleagues could understand what we'd been through... So inevitably, afterwards, we couldn't really imagine ourselves anywhere else, in another school working alongside people who wouldn't necessarily get it."

But others haven't returned to the classroom since.

One teacher, like Paty a teacher of history and geography, told RFI that he quit the profession the day after his colleague's death.

"It was difficult for me to imagine myself still teaching years afterwards because before, faced with certain situations, certain remarks by the students, certain things that might happen in class, I could defuse things with a bit of humour, a word – and suddenly I was no longer sure I could set aside my emotions," he said.

'A dangerous profession'

The fallout continues to affect not just those who taught alongside Paty, but teachers all over France. 

The murder of another teacher, Dominique Bernard, in October this year revived fears that the tension between France's strident secularism and resurgent religious extremism could play out violently in schools.

Like Paty, Bernard was stabbed to death by a young man from Chechnya exposed to radical Islam.

"Teaching is becoming a dangerous profession," one of the teachers attending the trial this week told RFI. 

"What happened three years ago impacted the way we teach, the way we are. That's how it is for us at Bois d'Aulne school, but I think every teacher in France will see themselves in us."

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