Jonathan Miller

Terror in the Republic: the beheading of Samuel Paty

Terror in the Republic: the beheading of Samuel Paty
(Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)
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The decapitation of middle school teacher Samuel Paty, 47, by an Islamist in a suburb of Paris yesterday is not just another tragedy and blow to French morale — it is also a reminder of why Emmanuel Macron feels exposed on the issue of what he calls 'Muslim separatism'. Channelling the Spanish civil war slogan 'No pasarán', Macron himself tweeted last night that Islamism 'ne passeront pas' — they will not pass. Marine Le Pen, his main challenger in the coming presidential election, countered that it has done so already.

The problem for Macron is that this atrocity fits a trend. It is eight years since the killing of Jewish children at their school in Toulouse. Five years since the massacres at the Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher market. Four years since the slaughter by Islamists of an 85-year-old priest in his church. And three weeks since a knife attacker gravely injured two people near Charlie Hebdo’s former offices. 

The latest incident raises the usual question: could it have been avoided? It seems it has been ten days since Mr Paty decided to talk to his class about freedom of speech, including reportedly showing them a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad that triggered the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent attacks on Jews. He’d invited any of his students who felt uncomfortable to leave the class. He seems to have triggered a mini storm on social media, which might have brought him to the attention of the killer. Some parents, it is reported, wanted to organise a demonstration in front of the school. So was his teaching brave or foolhardy or naive? Or all three?

After his fateful class, the school and the teacher were repeatedly threatened by parents. Yet the authorities apparently did little to protect him. So there are doubtless embarrassments to come. Today the French press has identified the killer (shot dead by police) as an 18-year-old Chechen, living as a refugee on a ten-year visa, who had not been listed as a radicalisation risk. Before being shot, he reportedly shouted 'Allah Akbar'. 

The broader questions are over the blow to the nation's psyche, for whom éducation nationale is as totemic as the NHS is to Brits. Totemic — but also accepted to be deeply flawed. The failures of the national education system are most apparent in the deprived suburbs where many of the schools are simply squalid. Years of attempted reforms have failed.

The fundamental social question is whether France is as indivisible as its constitution proclaims. The French government fiercely denies there are 'no-go zones' in Paris and the major metropoles, but this is absurd. There are weekly attacks on police stations and police officers. It’s unclear whether this latest atrocity will materially influence the presidential campaign. given that there are just over 500 days until the first round. But we can be sure that the campaign for France has already started.