‘French schools are no longer inviolable, they are a target’

France commemorated Samuel Paty tonight. The history and geography teacher was murdered and decapitated on Friday. He had shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson. It was an attack on someone who embodied the core of the French Republic, secular education, said President Emmanuel Macron.

The unsub, who was shot by the police after his act of terror, is an 18-year-old Chechen Muslim extremist. โ€œThis attack was a huge shock, but not a total surprise,โ€ says French history teacher Iannis Roder. โ€œAnyone who delves into the writings of ISIS and the views of Islamists knew that schools were a potential target.โ€

IS wants to influence youth

Roder has been teaching in a Paris banlieue for twenty years. He is a member of the French Council for Secularism (the separation between church and state) and wrote several books warning of the growing fundamentalism in the classroom. โ€œI always thought the school was in danger.โ€

Jihadism expert Hugo Micheron has been seeing French schools as a โ€œtargetโ€ of fundamentalist Muslims. Micheron spent years in prisons researching the origins of jihadism. โ€œIS no longer has territory in the Middle East, but the thought lives on. Also among supporters in Europe, especially among young people.โ€

โ€œ French schools are no longer untouchable. And that has a reason: IS wants to influence young people. That is what the Salafists, Jihadists and other militants focus on: youth. With this attack, they want to make it impossible to talk about freedom of speech at school.โ€

A poll last September shows that 40% of French Muslims consider religion more important than the values of the French Republic. Even 75 percent of young Muslims, under the age of 25, say that their faith is more important than French values.

โ€œ There are very deep lines of fault through French society,โ€ says the Dutch historian and terror expert Beatrice de Graaf. โ€œBetween Muslims from the former colonies in North Africa and the rest of France. In state schools, there is no talk of religion at all, while among the six million Muslims young people increasingly identify themselves as Muslim. They are parallel societies and that clashes in schools.โ€

Dont dare say everything anymore

For years now, the grip of fundamentalist Islam on the French Muslim community has been growing. Suburbs teachers see religion play a major role among students, says teacher Roder. โ€œI notice that to the behavior and words of some, not all, pupils. You see behavior and hear them say things I didnt hear ten years ago.โ€

Micheron: โ€œFour out of ten French teachers have had problems that arose about freedom of expression. Teachers already take that into account in the classroom when they do and do not say.โ€

Roder says that teachers have long been warning of the growing influence of political Islam. โ€œThis problem has been trivialized for years. It is pushed under the carpet. People did not like to talk about not evoking anger or being stigmatizing towards the French Muslim community. But by not talking about it, Islamism has grown. It has seeped through the cracks.โ€

Precisely wanting to keep religion completely outside the school walls leads to young people becoming more susceptible to radical thought, says De Graaf. โ€œReligion has disappeared from the school image, but comes back in this way.โ€

Terrorism via smartphones in the class

Whats extra tragic is that Paty was a teacher trying to talk to students about these difficult topics. The attacker was not one of his pupils, emphasizes De Graaf. โ€œThis is not an act of someone from that broad French Muslim community.โ€ The radicalized Chechen probably got to the teacher through social media messages from an extremist organisation.

โ€œ Terrorism, not as an attack but as a phenomenon, enters the classroom every day via the smartphone,โ€ says De Graaf. โ€œYou cant shut that out anymore. I think schools do well to really pay more attention to this.โ€

Roder: โ€œIm not naive. The battle will be long. That fight, which I hope we are actually going to do now, will last for many years, perhaps decades.โ€