The Hamas terrorist attack in Israel and retaliation in Gaza had already angered French authorities, prompting them to step up security at Jewish sites and ban pro-Palestinian protests.
Then, last Friday, just three days before the country marked the grim anniversary of the gruesome beheading of a teacher by an Islamist extremist, an eerily similar attack hit a home as a man used a knife to kill a teacher and injure three other people. at a school in northern France in what authorities called an Islamist terrorist attack.
Since then, the mood in France has gone from worried to alarmed. Authorities raised the terror threat alert to its highest level, sending even more police and soldiers onto the streets. Bomb threats emptied major sites over the weekend, including the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles.
Police officers in bulletproof vests armed with machine guns, their fingers on the triggers, stood sentry on Saturday in front of the school where a former student had carried out a knife attack the day before, killing Dominique Bernard, 57, a teacher of French literature.
Mourners arrived with bouquets of white roses. Many were torn by grief, but also anxiously wondering whether the escalating crisis in the Middle East had fanned the embers of Islamic terrorism and cast them on a small town in northern France.
“We are on the other side of the world, but we are faced with the consequences,” said David Milhamont, accompanied by his son Valentin, 11, who was removed from the attacker’s path on Friday by a room monitor and housed in a classroom. “How far it will go is the question.”
The alleged attacker, Mohammed Mogushkov, 20, is in police custody.
The feeling of anxiety was compounded by the disturbing timing of the attack – almost three years to the day after the brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a history teacher beheaded by an Islamist extremist for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in his class. illustrate freedom of expression, a killing that deeply traumatized the country.
The pre-scheduled ceremonies at schools across the country to honor Mr. Paty on Monday were suddenly painfully relevant.
“Islamist terrorism has struck what it rightly considers to be its greatest adversary: our schools,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement. message to teachers.
“The terrorists know that there cannot be a Republic without schools, without patiently learning in your classes the critical spirit and the values of freedom, equality, fraternity and secularism which forge citizens,” he said. -he declares.
The attack also came the morning after Mr Macron reiterated the country’s unwavering support for Israel following Hamas terror attacks. French authorities have raised the possibility of a link between Friday’s attack and the conflict, but have provided little concrete evidence.
France, home to some of Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish communities, has been on alert since the start of the conflict when Hamas invaded Israel on October 7. Nearly 200 anti-Semitic acts were committed, mostly verbal threats and vandalism, and more than 100 people were arrested. for such acts or for the apology of terrorism, according to the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin.
Fears of new tensions arise in a country already deeply scarred by Islamist terrorism, with two large-scale attacks occurring in 2015 and 2016, followed by a series of smaller, deadlier shootings and stabbing attacks in subsequent years , often perpetrated by isolated attackers.
Many French people are accustomed to this threat with suspicion. But few people expected an attack in a town like Arras, a small town 50 minutes by train from Paris, with a history of discreetly welcoming refugees.
“We have not had problems with racism as we see in certain regions of France, and there is no presence of the far right,” said the city’s mayor, Frédéric Leturque. “Unfortunately, this happened in Arras. But this could have happened in any other city in France.
The horror unfolded Friday morning at Gambetta-Carnot, a large public school in the city center.
The attacker’s bloody rampage led him to the school’s inner courtyard, where many young children were waiting for the cafeteria to open. Witnesses heard him shout “God is great” in Arabic during the attack.
Among those who arrived Saturday to place their bouquets on an overflowing table near the school entrance, many were students who witnessed the attacks and their shaken parents.
“I’m afraid to go inside,” said 11-year-old Franck Dissaux. He couldn’t understand that Mr. Bernard, his literature teacher last year, had left.
“Everyone loved him,” he said, his eyes filling with tears.
Colleagues described Mr. Bernard as a dedicated teacher and avid reader of French literature with an extensive library, who often left books with inscriptions in his lockers. He was married and the father of three daughters.
“I keep asking myself, ‘Why him?’” said Philippe Lourdel, a mathematics teacher at the school.
Schools in Arras were closed on Friday. In his barricaded classroom at another school, Marius Lajara, 15, said he saw the attack unfold on social media.
“There was a feeling of war in the city,” he said after arriving by bicycle with his shaken parents and younger sister. “I’m still in shock.”
The attack reignited a fierce debate over immigration, as Mr Mogushkov was on the country’s security radar for radicalism and was not a French citizen.
Like Mr. Paty’s killer, Mr. Mogushkov was born in the Caucasus region of Russia and arrived in France at a very young age with his family, who sought asylum. But some members of his family espoused a dangerous form of Islam, authorities said.
In 2018, his father was deported for “radical ideology,” Mr. Darmanin said. And his older brother, Mosvar, is serving a prison sentence after two separate terrorism convictions. Mosvar was reported in 2016 by his school for threatening teachers and wearing the qamis – a long robe used by some Muslim men that was recently banned in schools, along with a similar garment for women.
Like his older brother, Mr. Mogushkov had also been reported by school officials and had been under surveillance since July. Police even arrested him the day before the attack but found no evidence of a crime or an incipient conspiracy and quickly released him.
Right-wing and far-right politicians have criticized the government for failing to deport Mr Mogushkov, even though, with exceptions, French law prohibits authorities from deporting people who arrived in France before the age of 13.
“We are not making them leave,” said Henri Leroy, who is part of a Senate committee charged with studying the response to pressure, threats and attacks against teachers. “They remain on French soil and they are walking bombs.”
Mr. Leroy cited recent surveys that show about half of French teachers feel uncomfortable discussing free speech or the fundamental French concept of secularism, or secularism, in the classroom. . He said changes made by the government since Mr Paty’s killing – such as making it easier to protect teachers under threat or improving cooperation between police and school authorities – are not enough.
The government has pledged to accelerate the expulsion of nearly 200 radicalized foreigners who are illegally in France and wants to toughen certain immigration laws.
“School is the fertile ground of the Republic”, declares Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said Saturday during a ceremony to award a prize created in the name of Mr. Paty. “You come in as a student, you leave as a citizen.”
But unlike Mr. Paty’s killer, who stalked him in the street, Mr. Mogushkov went straight to the school, adding a new layer of fear, said Sébastien Ledoux, an associate professor of history at the Picardie Jules Verne University of Amiens who studied the effect of terrorist attacks on student life.
“It increases the feeling of vulnerability,” he said, “which is what terrorists want.”