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4 students detained after French teacher’s beheading

Police arrest a total of 15 people in raids on Islamist networks in Paris area; minister says there won’t be ‘a minute’s respite for enemies of the Republic’

French police officers stand guard as adults and children gather in front of flowers displayed at the entrance of a middle school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 30 kilometers northwest of Paris, on October 17, 2020, after a teacher was decapitated by an attacker who has been shot dead by policemen. (Bertrand Guay/AFP)
French police officers stand guard as adults and children gather in front of flowers displayed at the entrance of a middle school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 30 kilometers northwest of Paris, on October 17, 2020, after a teacher was decapitated by an attacker who has been shot dead by policemen. (Bertrand Guay/AFP)

PARIS (AFP) — French police on Monday launched a series of raids targeting Islamist networks three days after the beheading of a history teacher who had shown his students a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin vowed there would be “not a minute’s respite for enemies of the Republic,” after tens of thousands took part in rallies countrywide on Sunday to honor history teacher Samuel Paty, and defend freedom of expression.

Fifteen people were in custody on Monday, according to a judicial source, including four students who may have helped the killer identify the teacher in return for payment.

Those detained also included four members of the killer’s family, as well as a known Islamist radical and the father of one of Paty’s students, who had launched an online campaign against the teacher.

Darmanin accused the two men of having issued a “fatwa” against Paty.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, wearing a protective face mask, arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on October 19, 2020, for a meeting with representatives of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. (Ludovic Marin/AFP)

Sources in the interior ministry said there had been a total of 40 raids across France on Monday, mostly around Paris, and 20 per day were planned going forward.

“We want to harass and destabilize this movement in a very determined way,” one ministry source said.

A demonstrator displays on his back a portrait of slain teacher Samuel Paty, during a demonstration on October 18, 2020 in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Darmanin said the government would also tighten its grip on NGOs with suspected links to Islamist networks, including the Anti-Islamophobia Collective, a group that claims to monitor attacks against Muslims in France.

“Fear is about to change sides,” President Emmanuel Macron told a meeting of key ministers Sunday to discuss a response to the attack.

On Monday, he met members of Paty’s family as part of preparations for a ceremony in the teacher’s honor at the Sorbonne university Wednesday.

Free speech debate

Paty, 47, was attacked on his way home from the junior high school where he taught in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Paris.

A photo of the teacher and a message confessing to his murder was found on the mobile phone of his killer, 18-year-old Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov, who was shot dead by police.

The killing has drawn parallels with the 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, where 12 people, including cartoonists, were gunned down for publishing cartoons of Mohammed.

A man holds a Charlie Hebdo cover during a demonstration in Rennes on October 17, 2020, after a teacher was beheaded in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 30kms northwest of Paris, in an alleged Islamist terror attack. (Damien Meyer/AFP)

Paty had shown his civics class one of the controversial cartoons, depicting a crouching prophet with a star on his buttocks.

According to his school, Paty had given Muslim children the option to leave the classroom, saying he did not want their feelings hurt.

The lesson sparked a furore nonetheless and Paty and his school received threats.

Anzorov’s family arrived in France from the predominantly Muslim Russian republic of Chechnya more than a decade ago.

Locals in the Normandy town of Evreux where he lived described him as a loner who had become increasingly religious in recent years.

‘Can’t give in to fear’

French teachers have long complained of tensions around religion and identity spilling over into the classroom.

One education expert warned Monday that the murder might deter teachers from tackling touchy topics in future.

“There’s a huge amount of self-censorship,” said Jean-Pierre Obin, a former inspector for the French education system. “We must fear that there will now be more.”

But Jonathan Renoir, a 26-year old history teacher at a junior high school in Cergy near Paris, said: “We can’t give in to fear, we must continue to talk about controversial things in class.”

Another young history teacher, in Nice in southern France, said he, too, was “determined” to carry on.

“I will never stop teaching secularism and the freedom of expression, never,” said the teacher who asked to remain anonymous.

The government has vowed to step up security at schools when pupils return after half-term.

Head of the far-right Rassemblement National party Marine Le Pen speaks to the press at the RN party headquarters in Nanterre, near Paris, on October 19, 2020. (Thomas Samson/AFP)

Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen called for “wartime legislation” to combat the terror threat.

Le Pen, who has announced she will make a third bid for the French presidency in 2022, called for an “immediate” moratorium on immigration and for all foreigners on terror watch lists to be deported.

Paty’s beheading was the second knife attack since a trial started last month over the Charlie Hebdo killings.

The magazine republished the cartoons in the run-up to the trial, and last month a young Pakistani man wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside the publication’s former office.

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