Flush from his victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the French elections last July, President Emmanuel Macron decided to address head on the horrific murder of a Jewish pensioner in Paris three months earlier.
“Despite the denials of the murderer, our judiciary must bring total clarity around the death of Sarah Halimi,” Macron declared at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews of Paris by the Nazis. “We were silent because we did not want to see,” the president continued.
This remark can be taken on one level as an observation concerning French history, but on another, concerning the appalling silence on the part of the French media and political class, who feared that public discussion of Halimi’s ordeal at the hands of a rabidly anti-Semitic, drug-fiending Muslim immigrant would boost Le Pen’s election campaign.
With that speech, Macron left little doubt that he regarded Halimi’s murder as a hate crime. And by September, the Paris public prosecutor’s office announced that it was now treating the murder as a hate crime, a decision based on interviews that a court-appointed psychiatrist conducted with the accused murderer, 27-year-old Kobili Traore.
Pitifully, that is no longer the case. The examining magistrate in the trial of Traore, Anne Ihuellou, whose job is to prepare the indictments, announced at the end of January that based on the same psychiatrist interviews, the assailant would no longer face a hate crime charge. Her decision is now, in turn, being appealed by the public prosecutor’s office. The entire French judiciary is aware that a final decision that leaves the hate-crime element out of Traore’s trial will have profoundly negative implications for the declared intention of the French government to combat anti-Semitism.
Before explaining why that is, it’s worth revisiting the circumstances of the murder, so as to demonstrate the depths to which anti-Semitic hatred can sink. The 65-year-old Halimi, a devoutly Orthodox woman and former kindergarten teacher, lived alone in public housing in the Belleville district of Paris. The only Jewish resident of her building, she lived one floor above Traore, an immigrant from Mali. Halimi did not know Traore, but she was understandably frightened of a man who had once called her, as her daughter later revealed, a “dirty Jew” as he passed her by.
At 4 am on April 4, 2017, Traore went to visit relatives who lived in the adjoining building. Having apparently consumed large quantities of cannabis and other recreational drugs, he evidently behaved in such a way as to terrify his own family, who locked themselves in a room and called the police at 4:25. The unit that arrived at the family’s apartment could hear Traore reciting verses from the Koran on the other side of the door. Their decision to not to break the door down allowed Traore to climb out of the window and back into his own building, and into the apartment of Sarah Halimi.
Once inside, Traore beat and kicked her savagely. Neighbors who heard Halimi’s screams and Traore’s increasingly frenzied Koranic recitations and shouts of “Satan” again called the police. And again, the unit that arrived elected not to break down the door. As dawn broke, Traore threw Halimi’s bloodied, broken body out of the third-floor window to her death. Then he climbed back into the apartment of his relatives before finally being taken into custody.
In taking stock of this monstrous event, the French authorities focused primarily on Traore’s psychological state, allowing reports of his supposed mental frailties to seep into the press. Irritatingly, they never addressed the question of how someone who was allegedly stoned and in a state of hysteria still had the presence of mind to climb from one building to another.
Certainly, the psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Zagury, who interviewed Traore, concluded that he had indeed engaged in an anti-Semitic attack while under the influence of drugs. At the same time, he emphasized that Traore was not sufficiently intoxicated to be unaware of that he was inflicting torture and then murder on a defenseless woman. Moreover, Zagury pointed out the Islamist-inflected anti-Semitism embedded on Traore’s labeling of Halimi as “Satan”—noting that the idea that “the Jew is on the side of evil, of the evil one”—is a common anti-Semitic theme.
But Zagury also observed that by going through the process of a trial, Traore was at risk of a “delusional relapse.” That was enough for the magistrate, Ihuellou, to remove the charge of an aggravated hate crime.
As things stand, Traore will not be tried for murdering Halimi because she belonged, as her brother William Attal put it, “to the Jewish people.”
Sarah Halimi’s Jewish affiliation will be, at most, a subsidiary element in a trial that will become a cautionary tale about drug use, rather than the anti-Semitic hatred that has established itself as an integral part of the culture of France’s Muslim immigrant communities. If the French judiciary continues refusing to see what the executive branch—all the way up to President Macron—sees all too clearly, future grandiose assurances that anti-Semitism is fundamentally alien to French values won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.