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Rallies Erupt Across France To Honor Slain Teacher Who Was Beheaded

NOEL KING, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of people in France turned out yesterday to mourn a middle school teacher. He was murdered on Friday by an extremist who said the teacher insulted the Prophet Muhammad while teaching a civics class. And I should note, the details of this story are disturbing. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

(APPLAUSE)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Coronavirus or no, Paris' Place de la Republique was packed with people outraged over the murder of 47-year-old history teacher Samuel Paty. People clapped and snapped their fingers instead of yelling, and everyone wore masks. Retiree Michael Verandon says not even a pandemic could keep him from coming here.

MICHAEL VERANDON: (Through interpreter) I feel bad for our republic, which has been struck at its heart. The killing of a teacher is an assassination of our values and of all French people.

BEARDSLEY: During a civics class on freedom of speech earlier this month, Paty had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. One student's father complained to the school and posted a video online calling for the teacher to be fired. A known radical Islamist picked up the trail, posting his own video denouncing the teacher. A chorus of hate speech began circulating on social networks. On Friday, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee whose name has not been released acted on that hatred, say prosecutors. He came to the school, searched out the teacher and beheaded him in the street with a 14-inch knife.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BEARDSLEY: Police quickly tracked the killer down and shot him when he refused to surrender. But before he was killed, he had time to post a gruesome photograph on Twitter with the statement - I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down.

The case is being investigated as a terrorist attack. Eleven people have been arrested and are being questioned, including the man's parents and grandfather and other parents from the school. There were many teachers in the crowd Sunday, like Juliette Geminaux, who addressed people through a megaphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIETTE GEMINAUX: (Through interpreter) To think that a teacher can't be free to do his job because he has to think about whether he might shock a student or a parent, this is just not possible.

BEARDSLEY: The attack comes during the trial of 14 people accused of assisting the terrorist who attacked Charlie Hebdo magazine five years ago, killing 12 people, including many of the magazine's cartoonists. To mark the start of the trial, Charlie Hebdo republished the Muhammad caricatures.

Three weeks ago, a Pakistani migrant, angry about what he called the magazine's blasphemy, stabbed and wounded two innocent bystanders in front of the publication's former office. Many in the Paris crowd held signs that said, I am a teacher, and I am Samuel. Parisian Sophie Pinchon says this is plunging the country into the horror of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks.

SOPHIE PINCHON: I feel very sad because, you know, you can't imagine when you are French, we are said to be the country of the liberties. Many people come in France for democracy. And again, now, to kill a teacher, this is not possible.

BEARDSLEY: There are calls from the public and across the political spectrum for a major crackdown on any hint of Islamist radicalism. People also want new laws controlling hate speech online. Authorities say they have registered 80 comments on social media in support of the murderer's actions, and they've already begun arresting people.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "UNDER A WARM RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.