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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 3, January/February 2004

President of France saved by B.C. teacher

by Laurence Greeff

Mohammed Chelali, a Langley Teachers’ Association member teaching at Aldergrove Community Secondary School, was named a Knight of the Legion d’Honneur, having demonstrated outstanding bravery for the good of France.

He was honoured at a special ceremony on November 28, 2003, at the residence of the French Consul General in Vancouver.

The ambassador of France in Canada, Philippe Guelluy, on behalf on the president of France, Jacques Chirac, presented Mohammed Chelali with his honour, in recognition of the courage and composure Mohammed Chelali showed by intervening on the Champs Elysées in Paris when an attempt was made on President Chirac’s life on Bastille Day, July 14, 2002.

The medal of Knight de La légion d’Honneur also rewards Mohammed Chelali for the distinguished duties he has offered France and, for his sense of civic responsibility and the devotion he demonstrated during his teaching career.

I felt very honoured to be invited to the special ceremony at the consular general’s residence along with Mohammed Chelali’s staff rep and the BCTF president. Local specialist association members and provincial specialist association members were also present as were students and other colleagues.

In the moving ceremony, Chelali acknowledged the president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and shared his honour and medal with the teachers of British Columbia.

He spoke about the impact of Canada’s tolerance and diversity on his life. A Muslim, he has close friendships with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. He spoke about the critical importance of valuing one another’s culture and of teaching tolerance, compassion, and respect. As Mohammed Chelali firmly believes, "We have a duty to bring peace to the world."

To put everything into perspective, one must go back to July 14, 2002, when Chelali and his family were in Paris en route to Lebanon to teach at an international school for that school year.

Chelali and his children were about two metres away from the gunman when he saw the rifle taken from the guitar case. Chelali jumped on the gunman, who had aimed at Chirac with a .22 sporting rifle. The gun discharged as he wrestled the shooter to the ground.

He said that after the shot was fired, someone standing next to the shooter hit the gunman’s hand while he hung onto the weapon. A third person held onto the top of the rifle. The three held the gunman until police arrived.

"I jumped on the person and tried to take away his gun. And I took the charger/magazine, and all the bullets fell on the ground. We pushed him to the ground, and everyone was screaming and calling for the police," Chelali said.

It was only afterward, when the adrenalin stopped flowing, that he considered the risk he’d taken. "If I had stopped to think about things, I probably wouldn’t have done anything," he said.

"I thought, imagine if I took that gun from him and I was holding it and snipers were all around the Champs Élysées and if they saw someone with a face like me, they will say this is the guy who is the assassin. It’s a good thing I wasn’t thinking."

Mohammed said he wasn’t frightened about getting involved, but his children were. His son, Ines, 12, was crying and his 15-year-old daughter, Tarik, was shouting.

"I think a citizen has a duty to do this, to protect people." Chelali told the media.

The gunman was identified by police as Maxime Brunerie, 25, a member of "a violent neo-Nazi movement called Group Union Defense." He was arrested and committed to a mental institution.

French media reported that Brunerie had run in municipal elections as a candidate of the far-right National Republican Movement, an offshoot of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, which stunned France by surging at the polls.

The day after the attack, Chirac called Chelali on his cellular telephone to express his gratitude.

"My cell phone rang, and someone said, ‘Is this Mohammed Chelali? This is Jacques Chirac.’ Thinking it was a joke, Chelali replied, "Come on," before recognizing the French president’s voice.

"Permit me to express my profound gratitude for what you have done," said Chirac.

"I replied that I was only doing my duty," said Chelali.

"No, no, no," said the French president. "Not everybody would do this!"

Chelali met with Jacques Chirac in Beirut, when the French leader participated in a meeting that brought together leaders of 55 French-speaking nations and told him that he, Chirac, is the real hero. He is a hero for having won the elections and defeated the extreme right. By doing so, he maintains France’s position as the land of human rights.

To me, Mohammed Chelali is the real hero for risking his life to assist the French president. He was awarded the Medal of Bravery by Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson. The Medal of Bravery is awarded for acts of bravery in hazardous circumstances.

Mohammed Chelali is a proud member of the Langley Teachers’ Association and the BCTF, and when he said that he shares his honour awarded by France with the teachers of British Columbia, it brought tears to my eyes.

Mohammed, we are proud of you and honoured and humbled to work with you.

Three days after his great award, in the quiet solitude of his classroom, Mohammed Chelali gave his staff rep his cheque to the Democratic Teachers College Fund and smiled.

We hope that his message of peace will be heard forever.

Laurence Greeff is president of the Langley Teachers’ Association.

Chelali accepts award

The president of France, Jacques Chirac, on behalf of the citizens of France, has bestowed upon me a great honour which I accept with much humility. With others, I participated in an act of citizenship that saved many lives and foremost the life of the highest symbol of the French republic. Without any pretentiousness, I hope that this action will serve as an example not only in France but also elsewhere.

Fate, if fate there be, is that this action occurred on July 14, the celebration of the French Revolution. It so happens that on this day the intended victim, the President Jacques Chirac, had set up barriers to the forces of evil and hatred so that France would remain France. It so happens that on this day, the culprit was a neo-nazi, a racist who wanted to assassinate democracy in the country of human rights. Some will say later that the culprit was deranged; but racism and the negation of others, are they not clinical symptoms of a grave illness—hatred. It so happens that on that day, my two children were with me and at very close proximity to the gunman, and with them was a little girl, Emma Kotzer, who was traveling overseas and seeing France for the first time. And, as if there were not enough symbols in this unbelievable journey, Emma is a Jewish girl, my daughter’s best friend and the daughter of my best friends.

And finally, to complete the circle, it so happens that I am also Algerian, Arab, and Muslim! As if one symbol was not enough, before you is a waterfall of symbols to remind us that human nature always triumphs, for human nature, in essence, contains only that which is good and pure.

Your Excellency, once again, I would like to thank you for this great honour that you have bestowed upon me today on behalf of this great country to which I once belonged and to which I still belong. It is there that I met my first love, my wife Nora, and where my two dear children, Ines and Tarik, were born. They were born in the region of your birth. I am therefore a Northerner or a "Chti" by adoption.

I would like to conclude by saying that a country that has given me love, and today has given me this honour, will forever be a country that I carry in my heart.

– Mohammed Chelali

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