(CN) — France mourned the beheading of a 47-year-old middle school history teacher by an 18-year-old Islamic extremist with a somber and emotional national tribute at the Sorbonne University in Paris on Wednesday evening.
The killing of Samuel Paty last Friday at the hands of an Islamic extremist outraged over his decision to use controversial images of the Prophet Mohammed in his freedom of expression class has shocked France and jarringly reignited a national debate over radical Islam, Muslims in French society and the dangers of social media.
The killing also threatens to stir up hatred in France and the rest of Europe, where anti-Muslim feelings are rampant and fueling a rise of far-right politics. On Wednesday, European media outlets reported that two Muslim women were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower on Sunday in a racist attack.
Paty has become a symbol for France's fight to rein in radical Islam and uphold the nation's founding values and love for reason, science, the arts, freedom of expression and state secularism, which is known in France as laïcité.
“On Friday, Samuel Paty became the face of our French republic,” an emotional French President Emmanuel Macron said during the tribute at the Sorbonne as he stood in front of Paty's coffin. “Of our desire to break down terrorist networks, to break down political Islamism, to fight against all that will hurt our nation. He became the face of our determination to further understand and learn, to continue to teach, to be free.”
Macron said Paty was not anti-Muslim but “the exact opposite.”
“Samuel Paty was murdered,” the president said, “because he embodied the French republic, the values of the French republic, he embodied the liberty that the French republic wants to give to its students through schools.”
In the wake of the killing, Macron ordered a clampdown on radical Islamists. Authorities have raided dozens of homes and Islamic groups, threatening to close them if they are found promoting hatred. The crackdown also is drawing criticism that Macron is fueling anti-Muslim sentiment.
In recent months, Macron has taken a tougher tone against radical Islamists and appears to be pursuing a right-wing agenda to fend off his most serious challenger, the far-right politician Marine Le Pen who is known for her diatribes against Muslims. He faces re-election in 2022.
“Islamists and their ideologists have the objective to turn a part of our citizens because of their religion against the French republic, and we cannot let that happen,” the president said on Tuesday.
Macron touted his government's move to close down Islamist schools since he became president three years ago. He said those schools “didn't deserve to be called schools” and that they “were seeking to deconstruct the republic.”
He is vowing to take more action.
“We have pointed a finger at the evil, we have named it,” he said. “Our citizens today need to be protected.”
The government is looking at stepping up deportations of foreign-born Islamists and better monitoring of online activity.
Yasser Louati, a human rights activist and head of the Justice & Liberties For All Committee, said during a debate on France 24, a French news channel, that the clampdown was going too far and was politically motivated.
He blasted the Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin for saying the raids are taking place to “send a message.”
“We have here state-sponsored retaliation and intimidation,” he said.
He condemned French politicians for insisting Muslims are being radicalized.
“We have to be extremely cautious when we use and throw around words like radicalization,” he said. “The term is adopted under the pressure of events.”
He said the killing highlighted shortcomings by intelligence services because the killer, an 18-year-old man whose family is from the Russian Muslim-majority region of Chechnya, had been reported to authorities.