Tens of thousands of people rallied in Paris and cities across France on Sunday in solidarity with a secondary school teacher who was beheaded outside his school in an attack that shocked the country.
Samuel Paty was killed on Friday, after he had discussed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad with students during a civics class.
Demonstrators on the Place de la Republique held aloft posters declaring: “No to totalitarianism of thought” and “I am a teacher” in memory of Paty.
“You do not scare us. We are not afraid. You will not divide us. We are France!” tweeted Prime Minister Jean Castex, who joined the Paris demonstration.
Castex was accompanied by Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and junior interior minister Marlene Schiappa who said she was there “in support of teachers, of secularism, of freedom of expression”. Politicians from the other major parties also attended.
Some in the crowd chanted “I am Samuel”, echoing the “I am Charlie” cry that travelled around the world after 12 people were shot dead at Charlie Hebdo in 2015 after the satirical magazine published caricatures of the prophet. Muslims believe that any depiction of the prophet is blasphemous.
Between bursts of applause, others recited, “Freedom of expression, freedom to teach.”
“I am here as a teacher, as a mother, as a Frenchwoman and as a republican,” said participant Virginie.
Local authorities said about 12,000 people joined the rallies in Lyon in eastern France.
In Toulouse, in the southwest, approximately 5,000 turned out. “The entire educational community is affected, and beyond it society as a whole,” teachers union representative Bernard Deswarte said.
Hundreds more assembled in Nice on the south coast, where, in 2016, a man killed 86 people when he rammed a truck into a crowd on the July 14 national holiday.
“Everyone is in danger today,” said student Valentine Mule, 18, attending the Nice rally. “Things have to change.”
There were other marches in the eastern city of Strasbourg, in Lille in the north, and in the southern cities of Marseille and Montpellier.
Samuel Paty taught history and geography at a school in a suburb northwest of Paris.
A photo of the teacher and a message confessing to his murder was found on the mobile phone of his killer, 18-year-old Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov, who was shot dead by police.
Witnesses said the suspect was spotted at the school on Friday asking pupils where he could find Paty.
On Saturday, anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said Paty had been the target of online threats for showing the cartoons to his class.
The father of one schoolgirl had launched an online call for “mobilisation” against the teacher and had sought his dismissal from the school.
The aggrieved father had named Paty and given the school’s address in a social media post just days before the beheading, which French President Emmanuel Macron has said was a terrorist attack.
The father was among a number of people arrested, including four members of Anzorov’s family.
The Russian embassy in Paris said the family had arrived in France from Chechnya when he was six years old to seek asylum.
Locals in the Normandy town of Evreux where the attacker lived described him as low key, saying he got into fights as a child but had calmed down as he became increasingly religious in recent years.
Friday’s attack was the second of its kind since a trial started last month over the Charlie Hebdo killings.
The magazine republished the controversial cartoons in the run-up to the trial, and last month a young Pakistani man wounded two people with a meat cleaver the publication’s former office.
According to his school, Paty had given Muslim children the option to leave the classroom before he showed the cartoons, saying he did not want their feelings hurt.
Kamel Kabtane, rector of the mosque of Lyon and a senior Muslim figure, told the AFP news agency on Sunday that Paty was merely been “doing his job” and had been “respectful” in doing so.
Ministers in France’s defence council on Sunday agreed to step up security at schools when classes resume after the half term holiday.
Authorities will also be looking into the authors of 80 messages of support for the attacker from Monday, the Elysee added.
A national tribute is to be held for Paty on Wednesday.