France on Monday honoured the teacher beheaded near his school by a suspected Islamist radical as millions of students returned to class after a spate of attacks that have put the country on edge.

Schoolchildren across France observed a minute of silence at 11:00 am (1000 GMT) to remember Samuel Paty, who was killed in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, outside Paris, on October 16 just as the holiday began.

Paty had shown his class a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed for a lesson on freedom of expression, spurring an online campaign targeting him. His killing further heightened tensions as President Emmanuel Macron spearheads a campaign against Islamist radicalism.

On Thursday morning, three people were knifed to death in a church in the southern city of Nice in another attack the government called an act of “Islamist” terror.

Schoolchildren — wearing masks because of the pandemic — stood behind their desks or in schoolyards for the minute of silence. The gesture was matched by similar minutes of silence called as a show of solidarity by the authorities in Germany and Greece.

“I know your emotion after the terrorist attacks, including one in front of a school against a teacher,” Macron said in a message to pupils on his Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook social media channels.

“Today, in class, you will pay homage to Samuel Paty. We will all think of him, you and your teachers,” he said, adding: “The plan of terrorism is to manufacture hatred.”

– ‘Honour and duty’ –

Schools in France are reopening with the country at maximum terror alert, and parents have been told not to linger at school gates after dropping off their children.

Prime Minister Jean Castex also travelled to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine to pay his respects to Paty, alongside Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.

“Here, Samuel Paty taught every child of the Republic to be a free citizen. For him, for our country, we will continue. It is our honour and our duty,” Castex wrote on Twitter.

Macron has vowed to defend the right to freedom of speech after the furore created in many Muslim countries by the republication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in September by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons to mark the start of the trial of suspected accomplices in the 2015 massacre of its staff by Islamist gunmen — which was delayed on Sunday for at least a week after three defendants tested positive for coronavirus.

Following angry protests in the Muslim world over his defence of the right to publish the cartoons, Macron at the weekend gave an interview to Al-Jazeera television where said he could understand that the caricatures could shock.

In the latest protest against France, at least 50,000 gathered in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, for a rally which started at its biggest mosque but was prevented from approaching the French embassy, police said.

Prosecutors say Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen man, Abdullakh Anzorov, who was spurred to act by a social media campaign by parents angry he had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. He was later killed by police.

The stabbing rampage in Nice is suspected to have been carried out by Brahim Issaoui, a 21-year-old who arrived in Europe from Tunisia in September. He remains in serious condition in hospital after police shot him.

Police have detained six people for questioning over the Nice attack and are attempting to ascertain if Issaoui had any outside help or encouragement.

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said he would travel to Tunisia and Algeria at the end of this week to discuss the fight against terror, and would also soon travel for talks in Russia.

However an individual arrested over the shooting was released on Sunday and so far the authorities have not handed the case to anti-terror prosecutors.

AFP