After “We are Charlie,” “We are Samuel”? Five years after the massacre of the staff of the weekly paper Charlie Hebdo in central Paris, the murder of a middle school social studies school teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a modestly prosperous exurb southwest of the French capital, has hit the nation of Voltaire and Émile Zola in the guts of its self-image.
The two great champions of tolerance and free expression may take some small comfort from the large crowds who gathered across the country on Sunday to express their grief and indignation at the decapitation, by a young Muslim, of Samuel Paty, the 47-year-old teacher and father assassinated near his school for teaching his students about freedom of expression.
Reportedly, M. Paty’s class has included a unit for the past several years on the subject of freedom of expression, its meaning and history, and, as in recent years, he used the case of Charlie Hebdo to show his students how freedom of the press can indeed by offensive to some, which (his lesson was intended to teach) is a good reason why it works — and must be protected.
As in past years, the teacher explained the nature of the unit to his classes (eighth and ninth graders) in advance, and said he would permit students who might be too deeply offended (notably by Charlie’s admittedly vulgar cartoons depicting the Prophet of Islam, which had provoked the murders of its editors) that they could take a break outside during this class.
But one student complained to her father, who went on a rant that was circulated, with the help of a radical mosque, on social media. He called the teacher a racist Islamophobe thug who must be stopped, and also complained to school authorities, who heard him out, investigated, and told him the teacher was not doing anything out of line. Meanwhile, a young enthusiast in a large town in Normandy (not very far away) saw the videos and, aware of the Islamic State and Qaeda’s instructions to kill infidels wherever they are (these have been circulating for years), decided to answer the call. He went to the school armed with kitchen knives and a “air-soft” gun and money to persuade a kid to point out the teacher, and did the deed. The cops arrived too late, but soon enough to track him down and shoot him.
Voltaire was hounded out of France by the authorities for criticizing the Catholic Church; Zola found himself in court for his denunciation of a miscarriage of justice in the case of a Jewish army officer wrongly accused of spying for Germany. They lived; their causes eventually won out. But their causes are not secure: Samuel Paty died, as did 12 of the Charlie staff, and as did a maintenance man in the office and a policeman there to protect them due to earlier threats rendered credible by a firebombing.
In the wake of the massacre, another police officer (a woman) was killed, as were shoppers taken hostage at a kosher supermarket in a near suburb. A few months later, a terror squad hit a historic Paris cabaret, the Bataclan, killed over 100 patrons and wounded 200 more. In 2017 and 2018, two Jewish women, Sarah Attal-Halimi, 65, and Mireille Knoll, 85, were murdered at home by thugs allegedly inspired by the same sort of noise that motivated the terror squads of 2015, the noise of religious leaders both in France and far away, who urged the faithful to kill the enemies and denigrators of Islam.
By a coincidence — if it really is that — the trial of the Charlie Hebdo killers who survived and were apprehended was wrapping up in a Paris court when the terrorist struck the Conflans teacher. The principal accused, who faces life in prison (France does not have a death penalty), was hurling hate and threats at prosecutors who, he said, were insulting Islam.
Muslim and Chechen organizations in France made low-key statements condemning the crime in Conflans and stressed the perpetrator was not known to them. But the father of the girl who started the hue and cry was counseled by a known anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist activist; both men are under investigation by police.
There always are zones of ambiguity in these situations. Maybe the father really was concerned primarily about his daughter’s education. Maybe people feel oppressed and misunderstood.
In 2018, a senior officer in the Gendarmerie, Arnaud Beltrame, exchanged places with a hostage during a standoff with a lone Islamist terrorist, who murdered him as negotiations stalled. An Iraq war veteran and devout Catholic, Col. Beltrame was shot and his throat was cut by a blade.
One difference between long ago and now is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the side of intolerance or injustice had the support of the French state and much of the French nation; it lost out to a more liberal conception of what the state should do and what the nation represented. Today, the side of intolerance and murder lurks within France but is not of France; it is frankly and avowedly alien, and its goal is a profound and radical transformation of this ancient country.
The demonstrations of shock and grief that followed terror attacks may be seen as representing of a broad French consensus on the value of tolerance and justice and freedom of expression under the rule of law. But the very unanimity of the shock and dismay that follow these violent attacks also points to helplessness, since they happen again.
A broad majority of French people evidently perceives evil for what it is. It does not agree on what its response should be.
France does not lack for heroes. Col. Beltrame strikingly epitomizes the best of Christian knighthood. Sarah Halimi, a doctor, and Mireille Knoll are paragons of neighborly and civic decency, who spent their lives offering help and compassion in exchange for hate and prejudice.
It is impossible to know how much their killers, or the 18-year-old Chechen Abdullak Ansimov, who as a child was welcomed to France (with his family) as a victim of Russia’s endless wars of pacification in the Caucasus (Tolstoy, in the late 19th century, already was writing about them), really, deeply, coherently, understood what they were doing. It is also impossible to excuse them on these grounds; forgiveness to be sure is on another moral plane, but it lies outside the scope of the modern state.
Just what to do remains a question that the French seem reluctant to engage in seriously, or at least coherently and consequentially. That they possess the means — the people — to confound the enemies of their civilization is evident from the admirable lives of barbarism’s victims.
But rhetoric and gestures often take the place of action in secular democracies. President Emmanuel Macron announced on the weekend that “fear must change sides.” This is a well-known line; it was used by French authorities in the 1950s at war with Algerian terrorists who proclaimed they were fighting for freedom. Algerian authorities used the same line when they in turn came under attack from terrorists in the 1990s who proclaimed they were fighting for justice.