Lucie Sarah Halimi, 66, was murdered on the night of April 3, thrown out of her window after having been beaten in her own apartment on the Rue de Vaucouleurs in the hip Parisian neighborhood of Belleville. While attacked, she had the time to cry for help, and to throw plates and dishes—either at her attacker in an attempt to defend herself, or on the floor to make noise and alert people nearby.
Halimi was a religious woman who, albeit Sephardic, worked for the Orthodox synagogue of the Rue Pavée in the ancient Pletzel—the traditional Ashkenazi neighborhood of Paris. Her attacker was a 27-year-old African Muslim whose name has not been disclosed, and who lived with his mother, his stepfather, and his brother down the street from Halimi’s apartment. A drug addict and a drug dealer, he had an argument at home with his own family earlier, and in an emotional state, had first knocked at several doors before entering No. 30 and asking one of the residents there to shelter him for the night. When the man refused, he threatened him. He then reached the balcony’s apartment and, from there, climbed up to Halimi’s apartment, which was upstairs. Several people, including his own family, called the police.
As Sarah Halimi was being beaten by her attacker, she began to shout for help and her neighbors gathered to intervene. They were stopped short by three policemen, who were either arriving on the scene or already present, and who refused to act until backup arrived. Powerless, like the neighbors, the policemen remained in the street and watched Sarah Halimi’s body fall to the pavement. The subsequent autopsy report assessed that she was still alive and probably conscious when she was propelled out the window of her apartment, and that she died from the impact of the fall rather than from the blows she’d received. At some point during the course of the incident, her killer was distinctly heard shouting “Allahu akbar,” a phrase he repeated several times. The police investigation is still unfolding, and Halimi’s killer has been placed under psychiatric care.
These are facts.
From then on, things got blurry.
The following day, three things happened:
• While Jewish institutions were granted an audience by the state prosecutor (the French D.A.) and promised “all the truth” in the case, the Jewish press denounced an anti-Semitic crime perpetrated by an Islamist terrorist. Representative Meyer Habib wrote on his Facebook page: “Is [the alleged killer] a jihadist? Moved by the anti-Semitism that plagues a part of the Arab-Muslim population? I’m afraid so.” On Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, rumors spread that Sarah Halimi had been stabbed, that her murderer was an avowed terrorist, that he had justified his deed by the Quran and that he was chased by the RAID team (the elite police corps) when the crime had occurred. From Israel where he lives, Sarah Halimi’s son Jonathan denounced the anti-Semitic insults that Sarah Halimi’s children had been subjected to for years by the killer, one of the killer’s sisters and by his parents.
• Meanwhile, the national press, TVs or radios remained totally silent on the case. It took a Jewish journalist by the name of Claude Askolovitch writing an op-ed for Slate’s French site to reflect and explain the mind-set of the French media: The killer was obviously deranged. He was now under psychiatric care rather than in jail. He had first tried to force his way into several apartments whose inhabitants were not Jewish. The prosecutor’s disclosure that the killer was not engaged in political activities, was not an Islamist, and not under surveillance, went in the same direction, meaning that there was no indication that the crime was anti-Semitic. As usual, therefore, the Jewish community was shooting itself in the foot. For the Jewish Council to be received by the judicial authority was a breach of normal procedure, a sign of the growing communitarianism plaguing the country and through which Jews were isolating themselves—each day, a little more. To speak of what had happened at all would only fan the flames of communitarian resentment, which would in turn inevitably lead to more discrimination against Muslims. (A few years back, Askolovitch wrote an entire book defending Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.)
• Marine Le Pen, presidential candidate of the National Front who has now made it to a run-off against left-centrist Emmanuel Macron, took a public stand in support of Jewish protests. She was the only politician to do so—which ended up convincing right-thinking people that the story was no cause for concern, and Jews that the extreme right was their sole ally in France.
So what really happened that night, and why did the police refuse to take action?
The Rue des Vaucouleurs where Sarah Halimi and her murderer both lived for 30-odd years is situated on the south of the Boulevard de Belleville, close to the Menilmontant subway station and neighborhood. It is the heart of cosmopolitan Belleville, the half-lumpen, half-bohemian area of northeast Paris where smelly Pakistani video stores and Turkish kebab shops neighbor each other. There are Chinese families from Vietnam, Yiddish-speaking Sephardic Jews in Lubavitch attire, Maghrébins and Egyptians and their women wearing niqab, and Africans, all of whom intersect at various angles. Once a bastion of the post-Commune proletariat (Edith Piaf was born in the nearby Thonon Hospital) the area today is also home to cheap Chinese restaurants and cheap Chinese prostitutes from Beijing, Muslim drug dealers, third-rate Jewish mobsters, ecological commerce, and alternative squats sheltering undocumented migrants. Kosher and halal greasy snacks line up on the same dusty sidewalks with Salafi bookstores under police surveillance and heavily-guarded synagogues.
In the early 2000s, four subway stations up, in the Ad’Awa mosque, the then-young Salafi preacher Farid Bennyettou taught the virtues of jihad and set up his 12-apostle group known as The Butte-Chaumont gang, which was dismantled by police in 2006 and from which emerged, among others, the Kouachi brothers, the men behind the Charlie Hebdo terror attack. It is there as well that, on Nov. 20, 2003, the first anti-Semitic murder in France occurred. Its author was labeled deranged and consequently was never judged.
The Sarah Halimi murder case does call to mind the killing of Sebastien Selam that day by his childhood friend Adel Amastaïbou. Selam, 23 at the time of his death, was a young DJ who’d grown up in the same building as Amastaïbou, on Place Colonel Fabien near Belleville. The two friends had not seen each other in a while that evening when Adel looking preoccupied stopped Sebastien’s car and asked him to come to the parking lot with him to discuss something. The two friends vanished underground, and some 15 minutes later witnesses saw Adel, ecstatic and covered in blood, springing out of the parking lot yelling “I killed my Jew! I’ll go to heaven! Allah guided me!” In an uncontrollable fury, he had repeatedly stabbed his friend in the chest, in the throat, and in the eyes.
Interviewed for psychiatric evaluation while in custody, Amastaïbou repeated at first what he has said right after the murder—that he has killed “his” Jew and that he would be rewarded for it by going to heaven. His purpose was duly recorded by the psychiatrist, a woman, who found him sane at the time of his crime, which she diagnosed as having been motivated by anti-Jewish hatred. However, further investigation revealed that both the killer and his mother had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics years prior. Both were following a thorough medical regimen at home to regulate their condition; some weeks before the crime, Adel Amastaïbou had stopped taking his medication. This discovery led the judge to declare his consciousness “altered at the time of the fact,” a notion that in French law makes one unfit to stand trial. The motive of anti-Semitism was consequently dropped and a dismissal of the charge was pronounced in August 2006 and confirmed on appeal four years later over the Selam family’s protest.
In the meantime, Amastaïbou was handed over to the Maison-Blanche psychiatric hospital, where the medical team favored regular contact with his family environment as a means to help him improve his general state. A part-time hospitalization was then arranged, resulting in Amastaïbou coming back home every weekend to visit his parents in the very building where the murder had taken place. That he could come across the mother of his victim any time in the stairs did not seem to be a concern; such an encounter, in fact, did happen, more than once, during the four years following his hospitalization. At that date, the Amastaibou family was relocated by the city social services in the 17th arrondissement of Paris where, although, no information is provided on their exact location; they’re said to be still living there today. (Sebastien Selam’s mother, Juliette, on the other hand, never was granted a relocation, and despite her many requests still lives in the building in which her son was murdered.)
During the duration of the legal procedure, Juliette Selam’s lawyer Axel Metzker stubbornly tried to prove that the killer’s condition—as well as his mother’s—was a hoax, a manifestation of what is called in Islam taqiya, or deceiving the unfaithful in the name of the true faith. Playing out madness, pleaded Metzker, was, in fact, the best proof that Adel Amastaïbou was indeed an Islamist militant. But, of course, you don’t establish the sanity of a person through the symptoms of his mental disease. On the other hand, medical prescriptions and recorded years of hospitalization were there to attest to the reality of their state. Amastaibou was paranoid, he was delusional, could not be responsible for his actions, let alone carry an ideological viewpoint that made any sense.
Metzker’s rhetoric spectacularly failed. In trying to establish that Amstaïbou was “a jihadist” he let the court forget about the anti-Jewish atmosphere that had been pervading the country since September 2000. The rise of spontaneous aggressions emanating from regular people, the closeness of the Ad’Awa mosque, the fact, above all that Amastaïbou’s mother had harassed the Selam family for months before the murder on the grounds that they were Jews—all this was passed over and Amastaïbou was simply labeled “mad.”
Sebastien Selam’s murder set the pattern for the recurrent difficulty that French authorities have had with “the deranged” who have committed hate crimes and terror acts in France since the early 2000s: lonely individuals overwhelmed by irrational impulses they can’t control. The so-called Gang of the Barbarians, who abducted, tortured, and killed Ilan Halimi in 2006, were similarly seen as a group of unstructured youths; Mohamed Merah, who killed four military members and three Jewish children in 2012, was a lone wolf. Even the members of the commando teams who synchronized attacks Nov. 13, 2015, on the French soccer stadium and the Bataclan Theatre were labeled sociopathic and irrational. (That the Bataclan had been on a hit list as a Jewish target since 2009 was forgotten.) The medicalized rhetoric of “the deranged,” in other words, was the necessary prelude to the “lone-wolf theory” that for 15 years would forbid France to look at the Islamist groups at work in the country.
Even after the Jews stopped being the sole victims of violence, and Islamist-inspired terror started targeting the rest of the country, the obvious contradictions in the killers’ behavior helped keep alive the notion that they were simply “deranged”—as opposed to Islamist militants. There were the pedophile pictures found in one of the Kouachi’s computers, there was the recurrent homosexuality of most of the killers…
On July 14, 2016, the most spectacular proof that the killers could not be what France’s “Islamophobes” claimed they were arrived in the figure of Mohamed Bouhlel, the 31-years-old Tunisian who during Bastille Day fireworks in Nice drove a 19-ton truck into the crowd, killing 86 people. Shortly afterward, it was discovered that Bouhlel drank alcohol on a daily basis, ate pork, cursed God in front of his pious Muslim wife, and, when quarreling with her, even defecated on the bedroom floor! He was, furthermore, a multipartner homosexual. His most regular lover, a 70-year-old Catholic Frenchman, testified that Bouhlel had confided to him “not liking Arabs” but liking France “enormously.” His Tunisian psychiatrist confirmed that, in Tunisia, Bouhlel had been diagnosed as a psychotic.
Despite the claiming of the attack by the Islamic State two days after it occurred, Bouhlel was presented in the press as a crazy person; the IS claim could be seen as an opportunistic move. That he originally came from M’saken, Tunisia, a town known to be a base for the Ehnada Islamic party, of which his father was a dignitary, that he had planned his attack for more than a year, that he had accomplices and links with Islamist groups with whom he had traveled to Croatia—none of this was considered to be important.
This incapacity on the part of French authorities to differentiate the insane impulse from the intentional act, and the subjective design from the collective slogan goes deep. Although the death toll has reached almost 300 today, it seems France hasn’t learned anything. We’re back to 2003, back to normal, when Jews were the sole target of violence. This partly explains the panic among the Jews of France.
Yet something did change, to judge from what can be known from Lucie Sarah Halimi’s murder case, it may be for the worse.
On the day before her killing, Sarah Halimi had, it seemed, complained to the concierge about her future killer. The killer and his brother were known in the small cité for being noisy troublemakers who were often under the influence and prone to fighting, and she was fed up. The young man was not only a drug user but also a dealer and sources close to the investigation indicate that he owned his suppliers a great deal of money, and the day the murder occurred was consequently very agitated.
Under the influence of drugs, and probably drunk, he then started to knock on several doors before someone opened a door to him. That someone was, coincidentally, Sarah Halimi’s neighbor. Did he know where he was going when he started to climb up the balcony leading to Sarah Halimi’s apartment? Or did he identify her only afterward? Did he start to beat her because he’d recognized her as the Jewish woman whose children he and his family had insulted for years, the neighbor who’d complained about him the day before? Did he hit her because she screamed and fought him? And when and why did he begin to shout “Allahu akbar”?
It appears that the murder was the result of a spiral of chance events, engineered by psychosis as much as by drug abuse, but with an anti-Semitic impulse in the background, which a significant portion of the French media and judicial apparatus is determined to edit out of the story, partly because it is confusing and partly for what might politely be termed “social hygiene.” What is clear is the reason the three police officer on the scene not only did nothing to stop what was unfolding but even prevented the neighbors from intervening.
France is not convinced by its own reassuring rhetoric about “the deranged.” The country has become so nervous and paranoid about terrorism that here is what, according to sources, apparently happened: Although the man was indeed deranged, the policemen hearing the killer shouting“Allahu akbar” thought they were dealing with a terror attack. They, therefore, backed off and waited for instructions and backup when they could have — and should have — intervened to save Halimi’s life.
A few days after her statement, and in a completely unrelated intervention, Marine Le Pen abruptly denied that France had anything to do with the deportation of Jews during World War II.
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.