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A Guide to L’Affaire Halimi

The murder of Sarah Halimi and the absolving of her killer are being presented as a test case for the integrity of French justice, much like the Dreyfus case more than a century ago—one difference being that key figures on both sides of the case are Jewish

Marc Weitzmann
April 30, 2021
Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images
French Embassy in Rome, on April 25, 2021Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images
French Embassy in Rome, on April 25, 2021Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Facts

On the night of April 4, 2017, Kobili Traoré, 27, a petty delinquent of Malian background, and an occasional drug user and dealer with 22 convictions on his rap sheet, entered by force into the apartment of a neighboring family, the Diarras, also from Mali. He seemed so agitated and aggressive that the family locked themselves in the bedroom, where the father called the cops. Through the door, they said they could hear Traoré reciting verses of the Quran. Three policemen quickly responded to the father’s call, but apparently entered the wrong building.

In the meantime, Traoré had stepped over the Diarras’ balcony and climbed into the living room of a neighboring 65-year-old retired doctor and Jewish schoolteacher named Sarah Halimi. As Halimi woke up to discover the intruder in her living room, he asked her for help. Convinced he was the victim of witchcraft in his family, Traoré had spent the two previous days in a growing state of anxiety, hearing voices, arguing with his stepfather, and looking for an exorcist at the nearby Salafi mosque. To try to relax, he had also smoked more than 15 joints. The Quran verses he had recited—and that would be heard again as he beat Halimi repeatedly before throwing her over the balcony—weren’t jihadist praises to Islam, but exorcist formulas supposed to help him fight the demon who, he believed, was trying to enter his body.

Despite knowing Sarah Halimi from the neighborhood, the assumption that Traoré recognized his older neighbor that night is dubious at best. What he did recognize—and we know this from his own statement to the judge later on—was the menorah adorning Halimi’s living room. It was that vision, a Jewish sign, that made him realize he was inside the home of the very devil he was trying to shake off.

The rest is known through the testimonies of the neighbors awakened by Sarah Halimi’s “bestial” cries while Kobili Traoré beat her savagely, cried out Allahu akbar,” “shut your mouth,” and “you sheitan!” (devil or Satan). Among those auditory witnesses were also six policemen who—in addition to the three that had finally found the right building—stood in the lobby. Convinced that they faced a terror attack, they waited for an elite squad to intervene. But by the time reinforcements finally arrived around 5 a.m., it was too late: Sarah Halimi had been thrown out of her window, still alive, her face and body badly disfigured by the severe beating she had suffered. She died a few minutes later.

Kobili Traoré did not resist arrest. Immediately placed under psychiatric custody, he was questioned more than three months later on July 12 by the judge investigating the case, Anne Ihuellou, who charged him with the murder of Sarah Halimi and forcible confinement of the Diarras, but kept him under psychiatric care and ordered a psychiatric evaluation.

In the meantime, Sarah Halimi’s sister-in-law filed a complaint against the inertia of the police. Sarah Halimi’s brother William Attal testified that his sister had feared Kabili Traoré ever since he called her “a dirty Jew” more than a year prior to the murder, and had even filed a request with social services in the nearby suburb of Créteil to be moved there.

In July 2019, after no less than seven psychiatric experts examined Traoré, and despite the fact that the antisemitic nature of his crime had been recorded in the case file, a preliminary ruling was issued, stating that Traoré was likely to be considered criminally irresponsible as he was in a severe psychotic state at the time of the killing. That judgment was reaffirmed a few months later by the Court of Appeal, and made final by Paris’ Supreme Court of Appeal on April 14, 2021, triggering a general uproar. What led to such a decision?

The Judge

There is no doubt that investigative judge Anne Ihuellou played a crucial role in the high-profile legal misfire of the Halimi murder case. Although they disagree on almost everything else, the various experts and lawyers I spoke with all agreed that the judge was peculiarly and from the very start dead set against including antisemitism as an aggravating circumstance to the crime. In fact, the issue was not even raised before the first psychiatric expert, the well-reputed Daniel Zagury, was assigned to the case in December 2017. “I answered a question that was not asked,” he told me.

In his report, Zagury diagnosed Traoré with “une bouffée délirante antisémite,” an antisemitic psychotic episode, probably aggravated by his smoking so many joints. Although Traoré knew his victim from before, he did not target her as a Jew, nor was it likely that he identified her at all, wrote Zagury. Yet as soon as Traoré saw the menorah, Zagury believed, this vision clashed with his delirious thematics (of being chased by demons), associating Halimi with the devil which amplified the hateful, vengeful, frenetic outburst of savage violence.

To decide whether a criminal should be held legally responsible or sent to a mental hospital, French law makes a distinction between a subject whose consciousness is “abolished,” in which case he or she can’t be judged, or merely “altered,” and therefore subject to punishment by law. Despite acknowledging the reality of the killer’s psychotic episode, Zagury concluded that “altered” was the correct description. His reason was the choice Traoré had made to smoke joints: If Traoré was conscious enough to choose to try to calm his anxiety down that way, then he knew what he was doing at least to a point, even if the drugs later altered his judgment.

Unsatisfied with the result, the investigative judge commissioned two other teams of experts. By then, the judge had clashed with the victim’s lawyers—whom she refused to meet—and seems to have been so determined to see Traoré as himself a victim that she refused to allow his presence on the scene of the crime to reconstitute the facts. Further, and contrary to standard procedure, no reconstitution of the murder scene was ever conducted. As for the antisemitic aspect of the murder, the judge added it to the file, reluctantly, after nine months of resistance and under pressure from the general prosecutor at the Ministry of Justice.

The Experts

Multiplying the experts assigned to such a case was an almost certain guarantee of trouble. All the more so in this case, perhaps, since Daniel Zagury and Paul Bensussan, the leader of the second team of experts, are both Jewish and seemed to have entertained for years a professional relationship marked by ill-tempered rivalry. In any case, while Bensussan’s report followed Zagury’s in acknowledging Traoré’s severe psychotic episode, as well as his antisemitism, the conclusion he drew was the exact opposite: The murderer’s consciousness was “abolished” at the time of the facts under review, and therefore could not be judged.

The third team of experts was led by a non-Jew with no apparent personal or professional stake in the rivalry between the two Jewish experts. This team concluded, cautiously, that Traoré’s consciousness may or may not have been altered or abolished. In other words, everything was possible: The matter was for the judge to decide.

Psychosis & Witchcraft

One of the most disturbing difficulties in assessing Traoré’s precise state of mind that night lay in his belief in witchcraft. The French press has totally mischaracterized Bensussan’s analysis, attributing to it the false notion that Traoré’s lack of legal responsibility was due to his taking drugs. The reason for such a colossal collective blunder on the part of the press is hard to understand—laziness of an industrial scope perhaps, or fear of confronting the real issue. But the press has led public opinion to believe, absurdly, that Traoré had been spared the rigor of the law because he had smoked joints. Bensussan’s position is in fact much more interesting than that because, even if proven wrong, it raises an unsettling question.

Like Zagury, Bensussan argues that Traoré’s psychotic episode did not start the night of the murder, but one and a half days earlier, when he started to think he was bewitched and began to hear voices. But contrary to Zagury, Bensussan sees in these manifestations the symptoms of a nascent schizophrenia that is bound to develop and reoccur chronically. If they had any effect at all, the drugs Traoré smoked that night only added to an existing abolition of consciousness. They did not create his psychosis nor change its course. Hence the lack of legal responsibility. According to French law, an abolition of consciousness is acknowledged if, and only if, a prognosis of incipient and developing schizophrenia can be confidently established.

In other words, Bensussan based his diagnosis of madness, and his prognosis of a future mental disease, on what he saw as Traoré’s erratic behavior: the belief that he was possessed, the search for an exorcist, his fear. But isn’t there a more rational, even cultural context in which such beliefs can be framed?

What if it was the product of a migrant culture—of fragmented cultures rearranged in a new context, but still culturally coherent enough for everyone in Traoré’s surroundings?

“We did not feel the need for an ethno-psychiatrist in our team,” Bensussan said to me when I raised the issue, “because Traoré’s symptoms were too hybrid to be coherently attached to any specific culture.” Traoré sometimes believed his stepfather was trying to poison him by blood transfer, and sometimes that the Haitian family help was practicing voodoo on him. But what if such hybridization was the product of a migrant culture—of fragmented cultures rearranged in a new context, but still culturally coherent enough for everyone in Traoré’s surroundings?

“Don’t kill him, don’t kill him, he’s possessed!” cried out Kobili Traoré’s sister Hinda when the cops on the scene finally tried to arrest him. Later, during her interview by the police, Hinda explained: “Kobili is not as usual, in the way he talks, in his eyes, you see he’s possessed … We all were possessed in the family … He thought it was his stepfather but we did not and so we argued.”

Aissé Traoré, Kobili’s other sister, agreed with Hinda and with her brother’s own self-diagnosis: “The marabout told me he was possessed.” And finally, the Traorés’ mother: “For two days he was strange, he was bizarre, he could not blink, he stared at everything with empty eyes, he was like inhabited by demons.”

Should all of these people be diagnosed with schizophrenia? And what about the exorcist Traoré went to see at the mosque on Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, near his home, which is known for being Salafi oriented? “What really matters,” notes Zagury, “is not what Traoré said at the mosque, or how he behaved then, but what was said to him.” Of which we know nothing.

In short, it may not be Traoré’s consciousness that was abolished, but his sense of self, which seems to have been overwhelmed by a syncretic belief in witchcraft made of animist magic, voodoo, unspecified superstition, and Islamic exorcism. And somewhere deep in the tissue of this baroque inner world laid the true demon: antisemitic hatred. But then, how exactly should Traoré’s state at the time of the murder be characterized?

Interestingly enough, the question has been haunting France since the rise of a violent antisemitism in the early 2000s, when it became clear that, in most cases, the aggressors of French Jews were not Islamist militants at all, but regular people, mostly Muslims, suddenly overcome by an outburst of uncontrolled, unexplained rage against either a Jewish neighbor or some stranger walking the street with a Jewish identifier on his person. Traoré seems like an extreme example of that phenomenon, whose first manifestations in France anticipated the terror wave by 15 years, and for which no satisfying explanation has ever been provided.

A Diagnosis of Madness

In an interview with Le Figaro a few days after the Supreme Court of Appeal’s decision, the intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, one of the very few to keep a sane mind throughout the Hamili saga, said this: “The experts were not unanimous … In these conditions, it was left to the court to decide if the one who, after having massacred Sarah Halimi, threw her out of the window while crying out Allahu akbar!’ was conscious of what he was doing. Right now, one thing is certain: Kobili Traoré’s mind was clear and coherent enough, in the midst of a full-blown psychotic episode, to direct his murderous impulse against a Jewish victim …”

Finkielkraut blamed the verdict on judicial animus not toward Jews but toward France’s president—and he was probably right. A few days before the decision was rendered, Emmanuel Macron had made the mistake of publicly expressing his “wish” for the trial’s outcome, something the judges could not but take for political pressure. Then, once the judgment was made, Macron reiterated his stance and asked for a revision of the law on penal responsibility. Acutely aware that the 2022 presidential campaign will focus on security issues, and that his most serious contender will be the anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen, Macron also had to face the throat-cutting of a policewoman by an Islamist migrant from Tunisia that hit the news on April 23, one week after the decision not to prosecute Traoré. In such a context, the politicization of the Sarah Halimi case—and of the seeming leniency of French law for antisemitic murderers—was unavoidable.

In the aftermath of the Traoré decision, Sarah Halimi’s sister’s lawyers—Francis Szpiner and Gilles-William Goldnadel—announced their intention to press charges against Traoré, this time from Israel, where the sister lives. The idea is to subject Traoré to judgment by a legal system that allegedly protects Jews, as opposed to the French one. French Parliamentary Representative Meyer Habib, who is close to Goldnadel, went one step further when he alluded to a possible Eichmann-like kidnapping of Traoré by the Mossad, so that Sarah Halimi’s killer could get the trial he deserves. (Habib later “nuanced” his remark, if such a word can apply.)

It is telling that when it looked for a helping hand in its search for justice, the Halimi family, which hails from North Africa and is observant, didn’t reach out to the usual left-wing star lawyers of the secular French Ashkenazi Jewish establishment, who have for years made news fighting racism and antisemitism in France. Instead, the Halimis called on Goldnadel, a fierce adversary of the “assimilated” Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF), and an implicit ally of Marine Le Pen.

The recent public announcement from Szpiner and Goldnadel that they will file a complaint in Israel should be seen as a publicity move with no prospect of success, but which also serves as a declaration of war against both the French government and the “assimilated” French Jewish establishment. Never mind that all this makes French Jews look less French, and more estranged, in the court of public opinion. It seems bound to drive the Halimi family to bitterness and disappointment, if not to downright madness. But this is the 21st century. In France, anyway, and perhaps elsewhere as well, madness is here to stay.

Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.