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France terror attack: Thousands gather in Paris to honour murdered teacher

In a nation that prizes the power of protest, Place de la Republique, in the heart of Paris, is a traditional centre of venting your emotion.

There are demonstrations here every weekend. When I came to Paris for a huge anti-government protest last year, the place ended up shrouded in tear gas, its cobbles ripped up to be hurled at the police.

But here on Sunday, the protests were of a very different order. Fuelled by outrage over the horrific, savage murder of Samuel Paty, they were a very public display of unity.

Thousands gathered in the square. There were similar protests in cities up and down France – from Lille down to Marseille, all of them peppered with placards declaring either “Je suis Samuel” or “Je suis Prof” – kinship with the murdered teacher.

But while the applause rang out repeatedly, these events were not simply about paying respect to Mr Paty.

These demonstrations were a complex blend of themes – anger at the murder, spliced with resentment that the government has, in the minds of some we spoke to, failed to grasp the challenge of Islamist terrorism.

For some, this was a protest in defence of free speech, while others saw it as a show of strength against racism.

And then there were those who came with placards emblazoned with the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad – the very same cartoons that Mr Paty showed to his class a fortnight ago, apparently starting the train of events that finished with his savage death.

There were flags here from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. This was a diverse crowd of people, just as Paris is a multicultural city, but the question now is about the fundamental tenet of French identity.

Over the past 48 hours, more than one official has said that the republic is under attack.

France is a country intensely proud of its secular government, and the right to free speech. “We are not afraid and we will not be divided,” said Prime Minister Jean Castex.

Brave, forthright words – but the truth is that there are plenty in France who are, at least, nervous that this brutal murder may not mark the end of Islamist terrorism, but instead the latest chapter in an ongoing saga.

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