Samuel Paty, the 47-year-old history teacher beheaded for having shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a lesson on free speech, is remembered as a well-liked and committed professional who enjoyed drawing his pupils into debate.

Paty will be posthumously awarded France's highest accolade, the Legion of Honour, at an official homage attended by President Emmanuel Macron at the Sorbonne university in Paris Wednesday.

Thousands of people have rallied countrywide in recent days to express their horror over Paty's slaying and in defence of free expression of which he has become an unwitting figurehead.

"When my son had a problem, he (Paty) listened. Nobody deserves this, least of all him," Nathalie Allemand, the mother of one of Paty's pupils told AFP at a silent march in his memory on Tuesday evening in the suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine northwest of Paris, where Paty had worked.

Her son, she said, "has not spoken" since the gruesome events of last Friday, having been one of several pupils to see an image of Paty's severed head on social media.

Hugo, another pupil, described Paty as "great, very accommodating, and a good listener".

"He was really into his job. He really wanted to teach us things," added Martial, a 16-year-old former pupil of Paty's.

"Sometimes we had debates, we talked."

Paty, father of a five-year-old and a keen player of racquet sports, was attacked by 18-year-old Chechnyan refugee Abdullakh Anzorov on his way home from work last Friday.

His murder had been preceded by an online hate campaign led by a pupil's father since arrested, after Paty showed caricatures of Mohammed -- viewed as an offence by some Muslims -- in a civics class on freedom of expression.

The cartoons had been published in satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, infuriating Muslims and resulting in Islamist gunmen massacring 12 people, including cartoonists, at the newspaper's offices in 2015.

Parents and teachers have said Paty gave Muslim children the option to leave the classroom, but his choice of lesson material nevertheless unleashed a virulent online campaign against Paty and the school, culminating in a crime that shook a country traumatised by a wave of Islamist violence.

Kamel Kabtane, rector of the mosque of Lyon and a senior Muslim figure in France, defended Paty for "doing his job" and told AFP he had been "respectful" in his handling of a delicate subject.

Relatives and colleagues hold a picture of Samuel Paty at a silent march in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine where he had worked as a history teacher before his murder
Relatives and colleagues hold a picture of Samuel Paty at a silent march in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine where he had worked as a history teacher before his murder AFP / Bertrand GUAY

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has said Paty died in "martyrdom" for his profession.

Pupils and parents gathered spontaneously at the school with white roses after his murder, while tens of thousands of people demonstrated countrywide over the weekend against the latest attack on French secular values, which include a dearly-held right to "blaspheme".

"Everybody gave their opinion during his lessons, it was great," said one of Paty's pupils, who asked not to be named.

"Now we have to go on, we must not give in."

Pupils and parents insisted Paty was not trying to be provocative in showing the cartoons.

"He didn't do this to create arguments or to disrespect," said Nordine Chaouadi, who said his 13-year-old son enjoyed Paty's classes.

Another pupil, 15-year-old Virginie, said Paty had done the same exercise every year.

"It was part of the moral and civic education curriculum, it was to talk about freedom in relation to the attack on Charlie Hebdo that he showed these images, these caricatures," she said.

For Macron, who visited the scene of the crime last week, "one of our fellow citizens was murdered today because he was teaching, because he advocated to his students freedom of expression, the freedom to believe and not to believe."

School-goer Myriam, 13, said Paty was "not quite himself" after the furore over the class broke out.

Mimicking a gloomy posture she said the teacher had adopted recently as he walked through the corridors, she added: "I heard pupils saying 'He is racist'."

His colleagues remembered Paty as a teacher "invested in his mission" as a shaper of young minds.

"Public schooling is based on republican and secular values. These are the values that Samuel defended in his teaching on freedom of expression," they said in a joint statement.