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Paty murder trial shines a light on France's democracy

Lisa Louis in Paris
December 7, 2023

Six minors are standing trial in Paris for their alleged role in the killing of a teacher. But some feel the authorities are missing this opportunity to examine the state of freedom of expression in France.

Tribute to the teacher Samuel Paty at the highschool Theodore de Banville in 2020
The 2020 murder of Samuel Paty sent shockwaves through FranceImage: Reynaud Fanny/ABACA/picture alliance

The killing of French history teacher Samuel Paty on October 16, 2020, left the country in deep shock. And yet, some feel the first court case on the alleged role of six minors in the attack is failing to bring about a much-needed debate. A verdict is expected this Friday.

On a Friday afternoon in 2020, an 18-year-old Chechen adolescent stabbed and beheaded Paty in front of his school in Conflans-Saint-Honorine, a northwestern suburb of Paris.

The 47-year-old teacher had shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of expression. The caricatures had previously been published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was attacked in January 2015 by two Islamist terrorists. They killed 12 people in the newsroom and in the vicinity. Like Paty's killer, they claimed to "avenge the prophet."

The accused, five boys and one girl, were between 13 and 15 years old at the time of the attack, which is why the hearings are held behind closed doors. The defendants could spend up to two-and-a-half years in prison.

A tribute sign to Samuel Paty, with hand-written notes and drawings, stands in the front of where he was killed
The killing of French history teacher Samuel Paty in 2020 left the country in shockImage: Jeremy Paoloni/Abacapres/Imago

Social media campaign led to event

One of them is the girl who set off the process that would end so deadly. She told her father that Paty had asked Muslim pupils like herself to leave the classroom before showing the controversial cartoons. The girl pretended to have been temporarily excluded from school for having stood up to the teacher.

Her furious father published a video online asking for the teacher to be sanctioned, mentioning his name and the name of the school. His online incitement went viral and caught the future assassin's attention.

But the girl's account of events was wrong. She did not attend that class and was instead looking for an excuse for having been suspended — the actual reason had been misbehavior. She's been indicted for slander.

The other five defendants admit having helped the assassin identify Paty in exchange for money. Investigators believe the murderer told the youngsters he wanted to get the teacher to apologize to the prophet in a video.

Paty trial could shine a light on youngsters' minds

Lawyer Virginie Le Roy, who represents Paty's parents, sister, brother-in-law and two nieces, thinks the youngsters' motivation is central to the court case.

"The question is, did they think Paty deserved to be punished for having shown the cartoons, or were they only in for the money," she said in an interview with DW.

"That's all the more crucial, as all of them were born in France and should adhere to our democratic principles, which include freedom of expression," Le Roy added.

But Dylan Slama, lawyer of one of the defendants, who is Muslim, says the answer to that question is straightforward.

"He was 15 at the time and anything but radicalized. He did this out of immaturity, stupidity, and peer pressure and didn't know what he was getting himself into," Slama told DW.

"At the time, he hadn't given secularism much thought, but now he strongly supports it," the lawyer added.

France's very strict version of secularism — the separation of church and state — means religious symbols are banned at school. The concept of laicite is closely linked to freedom of expression and thus allows blasphemy.

Slama doesn't deny that this court case could shine a light on the youngsters' train of thought during the events. But he points to next year for the main part of the judicial proceedings.

That's when eight adults, including the girl's father, will be judged for their alleged role in the killing.

French authorities 'need to do some soul-searching'

But Antoine Casubolo Ferro argues the current case is also symbolic. The lawyer represents 13 of Paty's fellow teachers who are allowed to sit in during the hearings, as they've requested to be admitted as civil plaintiffs.

"My clients want to understand what exactly went wrong, how they lost their pupils' trust and what they could have done differently," he explained to DW.

French teachers in danger

"That question has a wider meaning, as schools are the pillar of our democracy and, just like this court case, part of our constitutional state's answer to terrorism," Casubolo Ferro added.

A renewed recent attack on another teacher shows how topical these questions remain.

On October 13, a 20-year-old radicalized Russian man, who had moved with his family to France in 2008, killed French teacher Dominique Bernard in the northern town of Arras.

Vincent Tiberj, professor of political sociology at Sciences Po Bordeaux institute in France, believes that the attack should be all the more reason for France to take this trial as an opportunity to do some much-needed soul-searching.

"We should ask ourselves what role schools are to play in our society, and what support teachers need to fulfill their mission, which is crucial to democracy," he said to DW.

"But instead, we are discussing how to limit immigration. The government is working on a new law and seems to label immigrants as evil," Tiberj added.

"And yet, there are many examples of young French people from an ethnically diverse background that succeed at school — which can serve its purpose if only it has the necessary means," he concluded.

A close-up image of Dylan Slama in a blue suit with a red tie and black glasses
Dylan Slama represents one of the boys on trial. He said his client 'did this out of immaturity, stupidity, and peer pressure.'Image: Philip Corsant-Colat

Trial 'could still act as a deterrent'

Raphael Dargent, a history teacher in the northeastern town of Selestat and member of the teachers' union SNALC, says the current public debate is missing the point.

"Many teachers are afraid of new attacks," the 53-year-old told DW.

"The government should focus on better controlling access to social networks, providing us with the necessary support to defend secularism, to which a certain number of pupils object, and secure schools sufficiently to prevent attackers from getting in," Dargent added.

Paul Renault, an 18-year-old pupil in the northern town of Dieppe and a member of student organization FIDL, agrees. 

"Many pupils are afraid, particularly after Dominique Bernard's attacker could roam freely around his school," Renault told DW. "This trial should be an opportunity to have a public debate on reinforced security measures at schools. And yet, that's hardly the case," he added.

Le Roy still thinks the court case could act as a deterrent — in case of a guilty verdict, that is.

"That would show that our judiciary defends our democracy's basic values, and that accomplices can't get away with it," she said.

Edited by: Rob Mudge