2003: Langley teacher Mohamed Chelali made Chevalier of French Legion of Honour, for preventing assassination of president

At a time when eyes of the world are on France and Muslims, a 2003 Times story is worth reading again.

(From The Times, Dec. 3, 2003).

Aldergrove teacher Mohamed Chelali was named a Chevalier (knight) of the French National Legion of Honour at a ceremony Friday night at the residence of French consul-general Jean-Yves Defay in Vancouver.

The award ceremony was witnessed by about 75 people, including his family, seven of his French and Social Studies 10 students from Aldergrove Community Secondary, friends, neighbours, and the presidents of both the Langley Teachers Association and the B.C. Teachers Federation.

Chelali, a South Surrey resident, received the award for his efforts in preventing an assassination attempt on French President Jacques Chirac at the Bastille Day parade in Paris on July 14, 2002.

He was watching the parade when he saw a man nearby take a rifle from a guitar case, as the president’s motorcade was passing by. He and two other men wrestled the gunman to the ground, and Chelali pulled the clip from the man’s rifle.

There was lots of irony in the situation. The gunman was linked with a neo-Nazi group in France. Chelali, a Muslim originally from Algeria, was vacationing in Paris with his wife Nora, son Tarik and daughter Ines. They were accompanied by their neighbour Emma Kotzer, a girl of Jewish background.

Algeria is a former French colony which was embroiled in a civil war for independence more than 40 years ago. Chelali, who lived in France before moving to Canada, was at the Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day and ended up helping stop an assassin who had ties to neo-Nazi groups.

He used his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony as a teachable moment.

Chelali thanked BCTF president Neil Worboys for attending the event, saying “this award is shared with all teachers.”

The French ambassador to Canada, Philippe Guelluy, travelled from Ottawa to present the award.

He said following the ceremony that “you cannot write a better script.”

He said he was very impressed with Chelali’s sincerity and honesty.

“This man takes it naturally. The president was happy to know that such a man was responsible for saving his life.”

Guelluy said that the award Chelali received is given “two or three times per year” in Canada – usually to people who have performed long and distinguished service to France or the French language.

“When we give it to foreigners, it is for a special contribution,” he said.

Chelali met with Chirac several months after the failed assassination attempt, when the French president was attending a Francophone summit in Beirut. Chelali had planned to teach in Lebanon for two years on an exchange program, but returned to Canada earlier than expected because of the tensions in the Middle East. Since coming back, he has been teaching at ACSS.