A French Yellow Vest protester has appeared in court charged with directing an antisemitic tirade at Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.
Benjamin Weller, a convert to Islam, allegedly shouted slogans including “dirty race”, “dirty Zionist” and “You’re going to die and go to hell” during the incident, which took place during anti-government protests on the streets of Paris in February.
He is also said to have shouted at Mr Finkielkraut: “God will punish you!” and “France is ours! It’s ours!”
Prosecutors are seeking a six-month prison sentence and €45,000 (£39,700) fine, arguing the insults were antisemitic.
But Mr Weller denied the accusation, telling a hearing on Wednesday: “I just told him my point of view”.
The court heard the incident occurred on Saturday, February 16, as demonstrators taking part in the 14th Yellow Vest protests were passing a spot near the academic’s home.
The philosopher emerged from a taxi and several protesters, recognising him, walked towards him shouting the abusive slogans.
“I was stunned,” Mr Finkielkraut said. “I tried to understand why they were heckling me. I think that had police not stopped them from approaching me, they would have attacked me physically,” Police reports confirm the group was aggressive and could have gotten violent.
Within hours, footage of the assault was all over French media and police identified Benjamin Weller, who is known to have pro-Palestinian views and had been flagged as a Salafist years earlier.
After the images were screened in court, defence attorneys said the accused should be acquitted because none of his insults were antisemitic.
“Can anyone in this courtroom tell me what the word ‘race’ means?” said Mr Weller’s lawyer, André Chamy. “It doesn’t mean anything. Races do not exist and there’s even a plan to take the word out of the constitution.”
He was referring to recent moves in the National Assembly to remove the word “race” from a clause in France's constitution guaranteeing equality to all citizens, arguing that race does not exist.
Critics criticised the move, arguing that removing the word would not eliminate racism.
“The truth is that youths in impoverished neighbourhoods use that word all the time and that it has no racist connotation.” Mr Chamy said.
But the prosecutor responded that the court was not gathered to debate politics and that French law defines “very clearly what race means.”
Mr Finkielkraut added: “I agree races don’t exist as such, but the accused believes they exist and he attacked me as a member of this so-called ‘dirty race’.”
Mr Weller denied threatening Mr Finkielkraut by shouting that he was going to die, arguing: “I meant to say ‘you’re going to die eventually, like everyone. I would never hurt him. If he was injured in an accident I would save him!”
The main issue in the trial was over anti-Zionism and whether or not the act amounted to racism.
President Emmanuel Macron said in February that France will adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which covers some forms of anti-Zionism.
But the defence said the accused was only making a political statement.
“The most virulent anti-Zionists are Jewish, so it’s not a question of racism. Zionists don’t have to be Jewish either,” Mr Chamy said.
Second defence attorney Elhamamoudy Ouadie said Mr Weller must be acquitted to defend free speech.
When the presiding judge asked Mr Weller why he protested against Zionism, the accused said Zionists control the world.
“Yellow Vests, no matter their political views, are all against the Zionist lobby. The Zionist lobby is the reason people are suffering. The Zionist lobby and other lobbies are the ones ruling over us,” Mr Weller said.
The defence focused on Mr Finkielkraut’s right-wing political statements about immigration, arguing that to criticise these, even vehemently, was legal.
Mr Finkielkraut told the court he had supported the two-state solution since 1981 and that right-wing activists referred to him as “pro-Palestinian”, prompting the defence to respond: “A Palestinian State that lies on 10% of Palestine.”
Defence lawyers accused the prosecution of targeting Mr Weller and not the other hecklers because his beard allowed him to be identified as a Muslim.
The prosecution said investigators had not yet identified any of the other people involved.
Following Wednesday’s one-day hearing, the court will rule on the case on July 12.