For the second time in 20 years, France basked in the accomplishment of winning the World Cup with a team whose diversity was as much a symbol of national unity as the creative brand of soccer they played. By any reckoning, a team made up of names like Mbappé, Pavard, Hernandez and Pogba is a near-perfect representation of the inclusivity to which France’s leaders aspire.
But politics are rarely as definitive and inspiring as sports.
Since he took office last year, French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to combat the anti-Semitism that all too often underlies bestial acts of violence against Jews.
His predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Franҫois Hollande, as well as former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, have all made similar promises, arguing with genuine conviction that hatred of Jews is a direct threat to France’s democratic traditions. All of them have uttered some variation of “France without Jews is not France.”
And yet not only does the violence continue, but French Jews cannot be sure of justice even when the perpetrators are caught.
On July 11, the family of Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman viciously murdered in her Paris apartment in April 2017, was told by the city magistrate that a panel of psychiatrists had compiled a second report on 27-year-old Kobili Traoré, Halimi’s killer, and concluded that Traoré’s lack of discernement — essentially, mental awareness of his own situation — rendered him unfit to stand trial.
For two decades, France’s 450,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in Europe, have lived with anti-Semitism that is alarming in and of itself and when compared to the rest of the continent.
Since the 2006 kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi by a gang who had seized him out of the belief that Jews are wealthy and willing to pay ransom demands — France has seen four presidents come and go. And yet 2017-18 was one of the worst on record, with 92 incidents of violent anti-Semitism reported — a 20 percent increase.
Alongside the murders of Halimi and Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, we have seen the phenomenon of “home invasions,” largely Muslim gangs targeting Jewish homes for robbery. In one case, the non-Jewish girlfriend of a Jewish man was raped as a gang roamed through his home, screaming about their “brothers in Palestine” as they searched for the cash they knew the Jews were hiding. In another case, a young Jewish man was overpowered and his parents beaten by a gang convinced that the Jews were hiding diamonds and bundles of cash somewhere in their abode.
All this has crystallized into what Prime Minister Edouard Philippe called in February a “new type” of anti-Semitism in France: “violent and brutal.”
And no more so than in the case of Dr. Halimi. On the night of April 4, 2017, Traoré broke into Halimi’s home via the apartment of her neighbors. It was not the first time he had encountered the deeply religious widow, who lived alone. On previous occasions, he had called Dr. Halimi and her daughter “dirty Jewesses” in the corridors.
For nearly an hour, he subjected Halimi to a frenzied beating. The blows, punctuated by Islamic religious slogans, were loud enough to alert neighbors, who called the police. Convinced that they were dealing with a terrorist attack, officers dithered for nearly half an hour, by which time Traoré had thrown Halimi to her death from a third-floor window.
In the ensuing weeks, the Halimi family had to deal not only with trauma, but with the indifference of a national media worried that the case would strengthen far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen at the expense of Macron.
Since Macron assumed office, the media has woken up, and it treated the murder of Mireille Knoll one year later as an example of anti-Semitic savagery.
Towards the end of last year, it seemed certain that Traoré would face trial, in part due to psychiatric expert Dr. Daniel Zagury, who testified that the killer harbored conscious anti-Semitism. Traoré even confessed to police that he felt angered by the sight of Shabbat candlesticks and a Torah scroll in Halimi’s home.
Yet we are now supposed to believe that Traoré, a petty drug dealer with a long criminal record, is so deluded that he cannot understand his crime. We are supposed to believe, as one of Halimi’s lawyers pointed out, that smoking cannabis, a drug Traoré had used for 10 years and not known for causing psychotic episodes, was a more decisive factor in his rage than his loathing of the woman at whom he’d previously aimed anti-Semitic barbs.
We are supposed to believe all this and more about a killer who had the presence of mind to tell the police, when they finally arrested him, that Halimi had committed suicide.
Under French law, a murderer who is deemed sufficiently insane can avoid a trial. If a third psychiatric evaluation of Traoré echoes the conclusions of the second, he will be excused from trial, protected indefinitely by a dubious assessment of his mental health.
If this sadistic killer is sent to a psychiatric hospital instead of answering for his crimes, France’s leaders should expect to undergo the trial of international public scrutiny. France’s ability to secure elemental justice for its most vulnerable citizens is being tested — and nothing less than the reputation of a nation is at stake.