PARIS (REUTERS) - Thousands of people gathered across France on Sunday (Oct 18) to support teachers and defend freedom of expression after the killing of Mr Samuel Paty, a history teacher beheaded by a suspected Islamist on Friday.
From Paris to Lyon, Marseille and Lille large crowds gathered quietly, pausing regularly to applaud, hold minutes of silence or sing the national anthem.
Prime Minister Jean Castex attended the gathering on Place de La Republique in Paris along with Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer and politicians from across the spectrum, showing solidarity after a killing that has shocked the country.
“You don’t scare us. We are not afraid. You will not divide us. We are France!” Mr Castex tweeted later.
Mr Paty, 47, was killed outside his school in a Paris suburb by an 18-year-old attacker.
Earlier this month, the teacher had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a class on freedom of expression, angering a number of Muslim parents.
Muslims believe that any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous.
The assailant, who was born in Russia of Chechen origin, was shot dead by police soon after the attack. Police have detained 11 people in connection with the killing.
People at the events on Sunday wore masks against Covid-19 and carried signs such as “Teaching yes, bleeding no” or “I am Charlie” in a reference to satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose offices were attacked in a mass killing five years ago.
“We’re here to defend the Republic, the values of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity and secularism. We can feel that the nation is threatened,” Mr Pierre Fourniou, 83, said in Paris.
Mr Paty had been the target of an angry campaign on social media before he was killed.
Mr Castex said in an interview in Journal du Dimanche newspaper that the government is working on a strategy to better protect teachers from threats.
President Emmanuel Macron was due to hold a security meeting with key ministers later on Sunday, his office said.
A national tribute will be organised for Wednesday.
"It is absolutely important to show our mobilisation and our solidarity, our national cohesion," Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told France 2, calling on "everyone (to) support the teachers".
Mr Paty had been the target of online threats for showing the cartoons, with the father of one schoolgirl launching an online call for "mobilisation" against him, France's anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said.
The 18-year-old Chechen suspect, named as Abdullakh A, was shot dead by police shortly after the attack.
Witnesses said he was spotted at the school on Friday afternoon asking pupils where he could find Mr Paty.
The schoolgirl's father and a known Islamist militant are among those arrested, along with several members of the suspect's family.
An 11th person was taken into custody on Sunday, a judicial source said.
Mr Ricard said the school received threats after the class in early October, which featured the controversial caricatures - one of the prophet naked - with the girl's father accusing Mr Paty of disseminating "pornography".
The aggrieved father named Mr Paty and gave the school's address in a social media post just days before the beheading, which President Emmanuel Macron has labelled an Islamist terror attack.
'Immersed in religion'
Mr Ricard did not say if the attacker had any links to the school, pupils or parents, or had acted independently in response to the online campaign.
A photograph of Mr Paty and a message confessing to his murder were found on the assailant's mobile phone.
The prosecutor said the attacker had been armed with a knife, an airgun and five canisters. He had fired shots at police and tried to stab them as they closed in on him.
He was in turn shot nine times, said Mr Ricard.
The Russian embassy in Paris said the suspect's family had arrived in France from Chechnya when he was six and requested asylum.
Locals in the Normandy town of Evreux, where the attacker lived, described him as low key.
One resident who had been to school with him said he had become noticeably religious in recent years.
"Before, he got involved in fights, but for the last two or three years he had calmed down" and had been "immersed in religion", he said.
Friday's attack was the second such incident since a trial started last month into the January 2015 massacre at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo.
The magazine republished the cartoons in the run-up to the trial, and last month a young Pakistani man wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside the magazine's former office.
Mr Ricard said Mr Paty's murder illustrated "the very high-level terrorist threat" France still faces but added that the attacker himself was not known to French intelligence services.
An investigation is under way into "murder linked to a terrorist organisation".
The investigation will also look at a tweet from an account opened by the attacker, and since shut down, that showed a picture of Mr Paty's head and described Mr Macron as "the leader of the infidels".
Mr Macron's office said a national tribute would be held for Mr Paty on Wednesday.
On Saturday, hundreds of pupils, teachers and parents flooded Mr Paty's school to lay white roses.
Some carried placards stating: "I am a teacher" and "I am Samuel" - echoing the "I am Charlie" cry that travelled around the world after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings.
Martial, a 16-year-old pupil, said Mr Paty had loved his job: "He really wanted to teach us things."
According to parents and teachers, Mr Paty gave Muslim children the option to leave the classroom before he showed the cartoons, saying he did not want their feelings hurt.
Virginie, 15, said Mr Paty showed the cartoons every year as part of a discussion about freedom following the Charlie Hebdo attack.