France is on high alert after a man stabbed a teacher to death at a school in the northeastern town of Arras, which is home to large Jewish and Muslim populations. With President Emmanuel Macron calling it an act of “Islamist terror”, the country announced it will deploy 7,000 soldiers under the highest warning levels amid fears that the conflict between Israel and Hamas could lead to violent incidents in foreign capitals. As a result, the famous Louvre museum in Paris evacuated its visitors and closed following a “security threat” on Saturday.
According to French authorities, a man in his twenties killed French teacher Dominique Bernard and severely wounded three others at the school he used to attend on Friday (October 13). The perpetrator, identified as Mohammed Moguchkov, was arrested while police claimed that he cried the Arabic phrase ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is greatest) during the attack. A police source told news agency AFP he is among 10 people being held in custody, including several members of his family.
Authorities have suggested a probable link to the ongoing violence in the Middle East. In Paris, a spokeswoman for the Louvre, the largest museum in the world, told AFP it “received a written message stating that there is a risk to the museum and its visitors”.
The Elysee presidential palace said the deployment of soldiers from Operation Sentinelle will be completed by the evening of October 16. Sentinelle is a French military operation involving the deployment of soldiers, police and gendarmes set up in the aftermath of the January 2015 attacks to protect parts of the country deemed sensitive from terrorism.
“This school was struck by the barbarity of Islamist terrorism,” Macron said after visiting the school, adding that the victim “probably saved many lives” with his courage in blocking the attacker. He said another attempted attack in a region near Paris was foiled by security forces.
The interior ministry said the president was referring to the arrest of a “radicalised” man leaving a prayer hall in the Yvelines region bordering Paris for carrying a prohibited weapon. Interior minister Gerald Darmanin later said there is “probably a link between what’s happening in the Middle East and this incident” in Arras.
The country upped its threat level to the highest after Macron held a crunch security meeting on Friday (October 13) after the Arras attack, while the national anti-terrorist prosecutor announced that it has opened an investigation.
French authorities further said Moguchkov is Russian, born in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. He was already on a French national register as a potential security threat, a police source told AFP, and under electronic and physical surveillance by France’s domestic intelligence agency, the DGSI.
‘Terrorism has struck’
Bernard was stabbed in the throat and chest. Among those wounded were a school security guard, who was stabbed multiple times and is fighting for his life, and a teacher in a less serious condition. A cleaner was also hurt, as per anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard. No pupils at the school were hurt.
School pupils throughout France will observe a minute’s silence on October 16. The attack came almost three years to the day after the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty near his school in a Paris suburb on October 16, 2020.
Police said Moguchkov’s 17-year-old brother was detained close to another school.
Panic in school
The pupils and teachers were confined to the school premises before being allowed out in the afternoon. Martin Dousseau, a philosophy teacher who witnessed the attack, described a moment of panic during break-time when schoolchildren found themselves face-to-face with the armed man.
“He attacked canteen staff. I wanted to go down to intervene, he turned to me, chased me and asked me if I was a history and geography teacher,” Dousseau said. “We barricaded ourselves in, then the police arrived and immobilised him.”
On Saturday, the school was open for students to talk about the previous day’s tragedy. “I’m feeling sadness and anger,” said Victoire, a 17-year-old final-year student taught by Bernard. “He was always there for us, he was really an extraordinary person.”
France has suffered a series of attacks by Islamist extremists since 2015, including the suicide and gun attacks in November 2015 claimed by the IS on targets in Paris where 130 people were killed. There has been a relative lull in recent years, though officials have warned that the threat remains.
In an address to the nation on October 12, Macron said 582 religious and cultural facilities in France were receiving stepped-up police protection after the attack by Hamas on Israel. Speaking in Arras, he reaffirmed his message from that address for the French to “stand shoulder to shoulder” and “stay united”.
On the same day as the president’s address to the nation, Darmanin banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations in France until further notice, on grounds they are “likely to generate disturbances to public order”. In defiance of his order, hundreds gathered in Paris and other French cities on the same day shouting pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli slogans.
Police in Paris used tear gas to disperse protesters and said they arrested 10 out of around 3,000 people present.
Louvre to reimburse tickets
The Louvre Museum evacuated all visitors and staff and closed early in the day after it received a written threat. It said the move was linked to the government’s decision to put France on high alert, while promising it will reimburse ticket costs for those who booked for a viewing on Saturday.
The Louvre communication service said no one has been hurt and no incident has been reported. Paris police said verifications in the museum are underway, and the area was cordoned off as tourists and other visitors streamed out of the museum.
The Louvre, home to masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, welcomes between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors per day.
(With agency inputs)