Almost five months ago, on April 4, a 65-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman called Lucette Attal-Halimi and known by her Hebrew name, Sarah Halimi — a retired doctor and the head of a kindergarten — was attacked in the middle of the night at her home on Vaucouleurs Street, in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, apparently tortured to death and finally thrown out of a third-floor window.
This horrific crime is now turning into a serious judicial and even political issue in France — so much so that President Emmanuel Macron insisted in a public speech on July 16, on the 75th anniversary of the Nazi-ordered round-up of thousands of Parisian Jews, that “the judiciary must shed full light” on the case.
Which was a bold move, since the judges are supposed under French law to be independent from the executive. According to Jean-Alex Buchinger, the lawyer representing Sarah Halimi’s children, “such a statement is indicative, at the very least, of a very troubled situation”.
In order to understand what is at stake, one must go back to the events of April 4.
At 4am, Kobili Traore, a 27-year-old of Malian Muslim descent living one floor below Sarah Halimi, went to the flat of an older relative, Diara Traore, on the third floor of the adjoining building on 30 Vaucouleurs Street.
Kobili’s behaviour was clearly problematic, since Diara Traore locked himself, his wife and children in one of the apartment’s rooms and called the police at 4.25am.
Three minutes later, a unit of the Anti-Crime Brigade (BAC) — who happened to be patrolling the area — took up position in front of Diara’s door.
They heard Kobili Traore chanting Muslim prayers and Koranic verses. Unsure about the situation and the potential threats to the family, they asked for reinforcements. Additional policemen arrived quickly. However, for some unclear reason, the BAC unit still refrained from breaking in.
In the meantime, Kobili Traore put on new clothes and climbed out of the window to reach Sarah Halimi’s apartment, which was at the same level as Diara Traore’s.
He allegedly assaulted the Jewish woman and hit her mercilessly. From time to time he resumed Koranic recitation. Many neighbours, woken by the old woman’s screams or the assaulter’s religious chanting, called the police.
Some gave details about the exact location of the assault, the attacker’s identity, the fact he vilified his victim as a Jewish person and as “a Satan” while hitting her, or even — as far as the Muslim neighbours were concerned — the Koranic portions he chanted.
Yet the police still failed to storm Sarah Halimi’s apartment and rescue her. Eventually, Kobili Traore is claimed to have shouted that the woman was “mad and about to commit suicide”, and threw her out of the window.
He had time enough to climb back to Diara Traore’s apartment where he finally was arrested. His hands were covered in blood. There was blood everywhere in his victim’s apartment.
The behaviour of the police was strange enough throughout this tragic night. Further questions were soon to be raised about the handling of the case. First, while the murder and its circumstances were reported almost instantly within the Jewish community and by the press agency AFP, the mainstream media didn’t mention it at all for two days until BFMTV, a 24-hour news channel, quoted at least one AFP dispatch on April 6 on its website.
Likewise, very little was shown or said about a protest march by 1,000 people in the Vaucouleurs Street neighbourhood on April 9. Considering the enormity of the crime, the reporting remained bafflingly low-key.
Things changed only after Sarah Halimi’s relatives and their lawyers convened a press conference on May 22 with the support of Jewish community leaders.
On June 1, 17 prominent French intellectuals, from philosophers Alain Finkielkraut, Marcel Gauchet, and Michel Onfray, to historians Jacques Julliard and Georges Bensoussan, to demographer Michèle Tribalat and sociologist Jean-Pierre Le Goff, called for “full light” in the Halimi case — the very words President Macron would later use — in a collective statement published by Le Figaro. From then on, the mainstream media devoted more space to the case, and, ironically, wondered why they had not paid it more attention earlier.
Axel Roux, a journalist for Le Journal du Dimanche, a widely read Sunday paper, admitted on June 4 that when he started investigating the case, he was “stunned” by the paucity of the media archives and the “minimalist” approach taken by his profession.
No less disturbing was the public officials’ silence. French members of the cabinet or government officials usually react to such crimes ex officio. Some may even take a more personal stand.
For instance, President Macron tweeted on August 14 his concern for the victims and their relatives just a few hours after a car ran into a pizzeria and killed a 13-year-old girl.
No such reactions occurred after Sarah Halimi’s murder, even though the Minister of the Interior granted an emergency audience to the leaders of the Jewish community. Neither did the political class comment publicly, except for the then National Front presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, who made an indirect statement on April 11.
Third, there is the legal angle. The issue of the attacker’s sanity, and thus of his penal responsibility, was left undecided for more than four months, and is still pending. Dr Daniel Zagury, the noted psychiatric expert commissioned to deal with the case, is due to submit his report by the end of August.
Kobili Traore was first sent to two psychiatric hospitals. It was only on July 11 that he was formally indicted for murder and kidnapping and transferred to the Fresnes prison.
In the meantime, he was able to build up his own version of the April 4 events.
He now maintains that he had absorbed large quantities of cannabis on the previous day and that he was “possessed” by “outside forces” or “devilish forces”.
There is evidence that he also spent some time the previous day at the nearby Omar Mosque, a place connected to radical Islam. However, his mother claims that she sent him there precisely to help him overcome his “Satanic” obsessions.
More disturbingly, the investigative judge, Anne Ihuelu, has declined to charge Kobili Traore with antisemitic motivations. Under French law, hatred for any given group, be it an ethnic, religious or philosophic group, or a gender is counted as an aggravating circumstance when it comes to violent acts — and all the more so when it comes to murder.
The Halimi family’s lawyers note that many witnesses, including many of Sarah Halimi’s Muslim neighbours, have reported Kobili Traore’s antisemitic language during the assault. They also note that, while Sarah Halimi had good relations with her neighbours irrespective of their ethnic or religious background, she had “problems” with members of the extended Traore family who may, at times, have indulged in antisemitic abuse or threats.
Another decision that comes as a surprise is that Judge Ihuelu has both charged Kobili Traore for kidnapping Diara Traore’s family and declined to charge him for kidnapping Sarah Halimi herself.
The Halimi family’s lawyers see both moves as unacceptable and have taken steps to get them reversed, just like the refusal to qualify the murder as antisemitic.
How is one to explain so many disquieting developments, on so many levels, and such a manifest willingness from so many quarters, to silence or minimise the case?
Clearly, it clashed with France’s political calendar. The first round of the French presidential election was scheduled on April 23, and the second round on May 7. Then, parliamentary elections were scheduled for June 11 and 18.
There seems to have been a feeling among officials that criminal cases involving “community relations” might easily escalate into large-scale violence and derail the electoral process. This may account for the police’s semi-inertia on the fateful night.
A year earlier, a case in which police accidentally killed a Chinese resident during a domestic incident led to mass demonstrations and diplomatic difficulties with Beijing.
In February 2017, the alleged molestation by police officers of a French citizen of African descent was used as a pretext for demonstrations, riots and looting.
There seems also to have been a concern, at least throughout the presidential election, that reporting or commenting on the Sarah Halimi murder might benefit Marine Le Pen, who at the time was running high in the polls. A concern warranted, in some measure, by Ms Le Pen’s attempt to discuss the case.
Gilles William Goldnadel, a counsel for Sarah Halimi’s siblings who is suing the BAC officers, thinks that both attitudes tend to be common in France, even outside electoral periods:
“The issue is not so much about covering up antisemitic crimes than about covering up any crime against white, Judeo-Christian people, for fear of political consequences.”
There is something reassuring in President Macron’s request for a thorough investigation — as well as in the June declaration by prominent intellectuals.
For the moment, France retains its reputation as the country of Dreyfus — a place where injustice may happen but can be eventually redressed.
Still, there is also a feeling, both in the country at large and in the Jewish community, that a dangerous tide is rising.