French President Emmanuel Macron condemned what he called an “Islamist terrorist attack” on a history teacher who was beheaded in a Paris suburb on Friday, urging the nation to stand united against extremism.
The teacher had discussed caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad with his class, authorities said. The suspected attacker was shot dead by police after Friday’s beheading.
The French prosecutor against terrorism launched an investigation into the murder with a suspicion of terrorist motive, the prosecution said.
Macron visited the school where the teacher worked in the town of Conflans-Saint-Honorine and met with staff after the killings. An Associated Press reporter saw three ambulances arriving at the scene as well as heavily armed police around the area and police buses parked in nearby green streets.
“One of our countrymen was murdered today because he learned … the freedom of speech, the freedom to believe or not believe,” Macron said.
He said the attack should not divide France because that is what the extremists want. “We must all stand as citizens,” he said.
The gruesome killing of the teacher took place in the town of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine while the suspect was killed by police in neighboring Eragny.
A police officer said the suspect, armed with a knife and an airsoft gun – which fires plastic pills – was shot about 600 meters from where the male teacher was killed after he did not respond to orders to put his arms down and act in a threatening way.
The teacher had received threats after opening a discussion “for a debate” about the caricatures about 10 days ago, the police officer told the Associated Press. The parents of a student had lodged a complaint against the teacher, another police officer said, adding that the suspected killer did not have a child at the school.
The identity of the suspect was not disclosed. French media reported that the suspect was an 18-year-old Chechen, born in Moscow. This information could not be confirmed immediately.
The two officials could not be named because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations.
France has offered asylum to many Chechens since the Russian military waged war against Islamist separatists in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s, and there are Chechen communities scattered around France.
France has experienced occasional violence involving its Chechen community in recent months in the Dijon region, the Mediterranean city of Nice and the western city of Saint-Dizier, believed to be linked to local criminal activity.
The attack came as Macron pushed for a new law against what he calls domestic “separatism,” especially by Islamic radicals accused of indoctrinating vulnerable people through homeschooling, extremist preaching and other activities.
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with up to 5 million members, and Islam is the country’s No. 2 religion.
“We did not see this coming,” Conflans resident Remi Tell told CNews television station. He described the city as peaceful.
It was the second terror-related incident since the opening of an ongoing trialin January 2015 on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo following the publication of caricatures of the Prophet of Islam.
When the trial opened, the paper republished caricatures of the Prophet to emphasize the right to freedom of expression. Exactly three weeks ago, a young man from Pakistan was arrested afterthere were no life-threatening injuries outside the newspaper’s former offices. The 18-year-old told police he was saddened by the publication of the cartoons.
The incident came as Macron’s government is working on a bill to address Islamist radicals that the authorities claim are creating a parallel society outside the values of the French Republic.