ÉVREUX, France – You could easily have shared the same classroom – the immigrant teenager and the veteran teacher known for his dedication to bringing the ideals of the nation into a relationship that had made waves from newcomers to French citizens.
18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov, who grew up in France from the age of six and was the product of his public schools, rejected these principles in a horrific crime that shocked and enraged France. Offended by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad shown in a free speech class of teacher Samuel Paty, 47, the teenager beheaded him with a long knife a week ago before he was gunned down by the police.
France paid national tribute to Mr Paty because the murder was viewed as an attack on the very foundation – the teacher, the public school – of French citizenship. In the anger that grips the nation, French leaders have promised to redouble their defenses of a public education system that plays an essential role in shaping national identity.
The killing has underscored the increasing challenges to this system as France becomes more racially and ethnically diverse. Two or three generations of newcomers are now struggling to integrate into French society, the political establishment agrees.
But the nation has by and large opposed the suggestion by critics, many in the Muslim community, that France’s model of integration, including its schools, needs to be updated or revised.
President Emmanuel Macron’s strong defense of the cartoons has also made waves overseas. Several Muslim nations, including Kuwait and Qatar, have started boycotting French goods in protest. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech to question Mr Macron’s mental health and urged France to call back its ambassador to Turkey.
Mr Anzorov was the latest public school product in France to go against their ideals: two brothers who attended public schools in 2015 attacked Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine that published and republished caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad last month.
Jean-Pierre Obin, a former senior national education official, said public schools played a leading role in the “cultural assimilation and political integration” of immigrant children who were “turned into good little French” rather than “Italian.” , Spanish, Portuguese or Polish. “Other institutions that also played this role – the Catholic Church, trade unions and political parties – have been weakened and have only left schools, he said.
“Today public schools cannot do this fully,” Obin said. “But I don’t see any other model – especially the Anglo-Saxon model of multiculturalism, which I don’t think is more successful.”
The French model ran into obstacles when the immigrants were no longer European, white, or Roman Catholic. Today it is believed that around 10 percent of the French population are Muslim.
Trying to assimilate risk leads to some form of xenophobia among the broader population, said Hakim El Karoui, a senior fellow at the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne.
“The message is: ‘We don’t want you to be different because we want you to be like us,'” he said.
The children who do not assimilate – and often get lost and feel like they do not belong to France or their ancestral countries – embody the doubt “that our model is not the right one,” said El Karoui, an option the French have “Obviously find it unbearable.”
In schools, children with an immigrant background learned not only correct French, but also how to politely address teachers as “Madame” or “Monsieur”. They also picked up terms like secularism in a country where, similar to the United States, ideals are the foundation of the nation.
At least on paper, Mr. Anzorov seemed like a good candidate for French society. As a Russian of Chechen descent, he came to Paris at the age of 6 and attended a public elementary school. When he was about 10 years old, his family moved to Évreux, a town in an economically deprived area about 55 miles west of Paris that is home to about 50 Chechen families, according to Chechens living in the town.
The Chechens stayed mostly to themselves in Madeleine, a poor neighborhood with other immigrants, mostly from former French colonies, and whose integration is often made difficult by France’s colonial heritage.
Mr. Anzorov attended a middle school called Collège Pablo Neruda, which also offered citizenship classes on secularism and freedom of expression under the national curriculum. He lived with his family in a rent-subsidized five-story apartment building with a direct view of the local prison.
“He always passed in front of my house when he went home,” said Ruslan Ibragimov, 49, a Chechen who arrived in Évreux 18 years ago. “He was always alone with his backpack. Even if he saw me from afar, he would have come over to greet me. He never talked much. “
Mr Anzorov was never very interested in his studies and was passionate about mixed martial arts, said a 26-year-old Chechen who also plays sports. When he was 16 years old in 2018, Mr Anzorov lived for a while in Toulouse, where he had an uncle.
There he joined a sports club that had a Chechen coach and a good reputation among athletes, said the 26-year-old on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals against Chechens.
“His goal was to fight in the UFC,” said the 26-year-old, referring to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a top mixed martial arts promoter.
The club was in a public facility and was being investigated by local authorities because some members were praying in the dressing room and asking women to cover their arms and legs, according to French news media.
In a country ruled by strict secularism, such measures violate French law and are viewed by the authorities as a sign of radicalization – and they have resulted in many sports clubs being monitored.
However, it was not known what influence the club had on Mr. Anzorov, who was not on any terrorism watch list.
Unsuccessful in Toulouse, Mr. Anzorov returned to Évreux. His father, who specializes in setting up security for construction sites and other businesses, encouraged his son to join him, Ibragimov said. The father recently bought his son a car, he added.
“But he couldn’t drive it yet because he hadn’t got a driver’s license,” said Ibragimov.
It was only in the past few months that the teenager has shown signs of radicalization, said special prosecutor for counterterrorism, Jean-François Ricard. According to an analysis by French news website Mediapart of a Twitter account he created in June and deleted last week after his death, Mr Anzorov’s transformation appeared to have been happening online.
His posts on Twitter attacked a wide variety of targets – from Jews to Christians to the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Mr Paty was teaching history and civics at a middle school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a bourgeois Parisian suburb at the time of the attack.
“He’s the kind of teacher who leaves his mark through his gentleness and openness,” said Maeva Latil, 21, who tributed outside Jacques Prévert Middle School in a small village south of Paris, said Paty taught between 2011 and 2011 2018.
In history class, he used contemporary examples – from Pink Floyd songs to a book about a soccer player’s racism – to resonate his lessons with his students, said Aurélie Davoust, 43, a former literature teacher at Jacques-Prévert.
“With him there really was this aspect: you don’t study history to talk about dead things, you study history to become citizens,” she said.
Mr Paty firmly believed in Laïcité, the strict secularism that separates religion from the state in France. Ms. Davoust recalled that Mr. Paty once asked a young girl who was wearing a cross around her neck in school to take it off.
“Our democracy was built against the Catholic Church and the monarchy, and Laïcité is the way democracy was organized in France,” said Dominique Schnapper, sociologist and president of the Council of the Wise, a group set up in 2018 by the government Laïcité was founded to strengthen public schools.
In a class on free expression – including the right to say blasphemous things about all religions – Mr. Paty used caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, Jesus and rabbis to teach, former students said.
After his transfer a few years ago to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in a Paris suburb with a more diverse population, he seemed to adapt his approach. When showing cartoons, he told students who might be offended that they could leave the classroom or look away.
At the new school, students said he mainly showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo. One of the two titles shown that month was titled “A Star Is Born” and featured Muhammad completely naked. This has upset many Muslim students and their parents, according to the local chapter of PEEP, a national parents association.
Mr Paty said he was surprised by the backlash and apologized to the students, said Talia, a 13-year-old student who attended the lecture.
“He told us that he is a teacher, that this class is part of his program, that France is a secular country and so is our school,” said Talia, who asked that she be identified by her first name only because of the sensitivity of her Location.
An angry father complained about the teacher in videos he uploaded on social media. Furious, Mr Anzorov, the Chechen teenager, traveled all the way from Evreux to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, almost 60 miles, to kill Mr Paty.
“Had he never hired teachers? Or did he have her and he didn’t hear her? “Ms. Schnapper, the President of the Council of Wise Men, said about Mr. Anzorov’s years in public schools in France.” We will never know. But it’s a sign of failure. “
Antonella Francini contributed to the reporting.