Gavin Mortimer

A small French town and the betrayal of Samuel Paty

A small French town and the betrayal of Samuel Paty
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There is a council meeting in the southern French town of Ollioules tomorrow but one item has been removed from the agenda. The mayor, Robert Beneventi, will not now propose renaming the area's Eucalyptus College after Samuel Paty.

You'll recall the fate of Monsieur Paty, beheaded just beyond the gates of his Parisian suburb school last October by a young Islamist enraged that the teacher had shown a caricature of the Prophet during a lesson discussing freedom of expression. Paty’s brutal death sparked revulsion around the world – save in Pakistan and Turkey – and in France there was a large rally in Paris.

There were numerous placards proclaiming 'Je Suis Samuel' and similar sentiments were widely expressed on social media. At the time I pointed out the empty rhetoric of many of those present. And so it has proved.

The reason mayor Beneventi dropped the idea of renaming the college in memory of Samuel Paty is because of the results of an internal survey. On the question of whether Eucalyptus College should adopt the name of the dead teacher, 89 per cent of parents and 69 per cent of pupils said no. As for the teaching staff, 100 per cent replied in the negative. ‘Obviously we want to want to honour our colleague, but not like that,’ said a staff spokeswoman.

Asked why not, she said that first Paty was not from the town, so he had no strong links to the college. Second: ‘It would make us all targets and we don't need that. It's running an unnecessary risk.’

One wonders what the family of Samuel Paty made of the response. The mayor had obtained their permission to make the change, and had secured the agreement of the Regional council, so he imagined it would be a formality. ‘I wanted to honour this teacher, killed in the most horrible manner,’ said Beneventi. ‘For me, it's a strong symbol of the Republic.’

The town of Ollioules has a square commemorating Jean Jaurès, the Socialist leader assassinated by a nationalist on the eve of the first world war, and a Rue Gabriel Péri, named after the Communist executed by the Nazis (he has also given his name to several schools across France). Péri did not take up arms against the Nazi occupiers. His resistance was ideological, publishing anti-Nazi literature, and attacking their fascism with his intellect; in the same way Paty took on the totalitarianism of Islamist extremists. They shared the same moral courage.

The difference is they were born in different eras, a point made by Robert Beneventi. ‘I don't blame them,’ the mayor said of those who voted against renaming the college after Paty. ‘It's the general state of the nation's spirit. Pusillanimity reigns today and it's alarming.’

The same charge could be laid against the West in general. We are living in an era of monumental moral cowardice, in France, the USA, Canada, Germany, Australia, and in Britain, a country which repeatedly shies away from confronting the reality of Islamic terrorism.

Samuel Paty should be honoured. That he hasn't been is not a surprise. His death makes us uncomfortable because he is a reminder of our own shortcomings, particularly when it comes to freedom of expression.

So instead we scrawl ‘Je Suis Samuel’ on a placard, and kid ourselves that we have his courage.

Ollioules (photo: iStock)
Ollioules (photo: iStock)
Written byGavin Mortimer

Gavin Mortimer is a writer, historian and leading authority on world war two special forces. His latest book, 'Guidance from the Greatest: What the World War Two generation can teach us about how we live our lives' will be published by Constable in August

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