A photo at a bus stop in memory Samuel Paty, who was beheaded after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech, in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, France, Oct. 22, 2020. For generations, public schools assimilated immigrant children into French society by instilling the nation’s ideals. The beheading of Paty has raised doubts about whether that model still works. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)ÉVREUX, France — They could have easily shared the same classroom — the immigrant teenager and the veteran teacher known for his commitment to instilling the nation’s ideals, in a relationship that had turned waves of newcomers into French citizens. But Abdoullakh Anzorov, 18, who grew up in France from age 6 and was the product of its public schools, rejected those principles in a horrific crime that shocked and enraged France. Offended by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad shown in a class on free speech given by the teacher, Samuel Paty, 47, the teenager beheaded him a week ago with a long knife before being gunned down by police. France has paid national homage to Paty because the killing was seen as an attack on the very foundation — the teacher, the public school — of French citizenship. In the anger sweeping the nation, French leaders have promised to redouble their defense of a public educational system that plays an essential role in shaping national identity. The killing has underscored the increasing challenges to that system as France grows more racially and ethnically diverse. Two or three generations of newcomers have now struggled to integrate into French society, the political establishment agrees. But the nation, broadly, has balked at the suggestion from critics, many in the Muslim community, that France’s model of integration, including its schools, needs an update or an overhaul. President Emmanuel Macron’s emphatic defense of the caricatures has also led to ripples overseas. Several Muslim nations, including Kuwait and Qatar, have begun boycotting French goods in protest. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey questioned Macron’s mental health in a speech, prompting France to recall its ambassador to Turkey. Anzorov was the latest product of France’s public schools to turn against their ideals: Two brothers who went to public schools in 2015 attacked Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine that published — and republished last month — caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Jean-Pierre Obin, a former senior national education official, said that public schools played a leading role in “the cultural assimilation and political integration” of immigrant children who “were turned into good little French” and no longer felt “Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Polish.” Other institutions that also played this role — the Catholic Church, unions and political parties — have been weakened, leaving only the schools, he said. “Today, public schools can’t fully do this," Obin said. “But I don’t see another model — especially the Anglo-Saxon model of multiculturalism, which I don’t think is more successful.” The French model ran into obstacles when the immigrants were no longer European, white or Roman Catholic. Today about 10% of France’s population is believed to be Muslim. The push to assimilate risks engendering a form of xenophobia in the broader population, said Hakim El Karoui, a senior fellow at the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne. “The message is: ‘We don’t want your otherness because we want you to be like us,’” he said. The children who fail to assimilate — and often end up lost, feeling that they belong to neither France nor their ancestral countries — embody the doubt “that our model is not the right one,” El Karoui said, a possibility that the French “obviously find unbearable.” It was in schools that immigrant children learned not only proper French, but also how to politely address teachers as “Madame” or “Monsieur.” They also absorbed notions like secularism in a country where, much as in the United States, ideals form the basis of nationhood. At least on paper, Anzorov seemed a good candidate to fit into French society. A Russian of Chechen descent, he arrived in Paris when he was 6 and entered a public primary school. When he was about 10, his family moved to Évreux, a city in an economically depressed area about 55 miles west of Paris and home to about 50 Chechen families, according to Chechens living in the city. The Chechens largely kept to themselves in Madeleine, a poor neighborhood with other immigrants, who are mostly from former French colonies and whose integration is often complicated by France’s colonial legacy. Anzorov attended a middle school called Collège Pablo Neruda that, hewing to the national curriculum, also offered civics lessons on secularism and freedom of expression. He lived in a rent-subsidized, five-story apartment building with his family, with a direct view of the local jail. “He always passed in front of my place when going home,” said Ruslan Ibragimov, 49, a Chechen who arrived in Évreux 18 years ago. “He was always alone, with his backpack. Even when he would see me from afar, he’d come over to greet me. He never talked much.” Never much interested in his studies, Anzorov was passionate about mixed martial arts, said a 26-year-old Chechen who also practices the sport. In 2018, Anzorov, then 16, lived for a while in Toulouse, where he had an uncle.
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