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Ilan Halimi’s Tortured Ghost Will Continue Haunting France

In the final part of Tablet’s series on French anti-Semitism, echoes and paradoxes of a gruesome murder

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‘We are all Ilan’ (left) and ‘Ilan, I cry your name.’ Marseille, France, February 2006. (Photoillustration byErik Mace for Tablet Magazine. Original photo: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
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This is the fifth of a five-part series, France’s Toxic Hate. Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.

***

The trap that would lead to the abduction, torture, and murder of Ilan Halimi was set in the winter of 2006 on Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, a few blocks from where I live. In the months prior, kids from one of the toughest cités, Bagneux—who called themselves, Clockwork Orange-style, “the gang of the Barbarians”—had repeatedly tried to abduct people for ransom. Led by a 27-year-old first offender named Youssouf Fofana, the fifth child of Ivory Cost migrants, the gang members were between 16 to 26 years old and ethnically diverse. They set up their prospective victims in a particular way: A girl, selected by Fofana, would get in touch with some man for a date and ask him to bring her back into the suburb after their appointment. As a diversion for the cops, the youngest members of the gang would set fire to a car, while the others would jump on the potential victim.

So far, though, their method had spectacularly failed: All the targets, most of whom had Jewish names, had either foreseen the trap or escaped. In one almost successful attempt—which ended after the gang apparently panicked—the victim, Mickaël D., was found handcuffed and swimming in his own blood and told the police that his aggressors had called him “kike” and “dirty Jew.” Fofana had also tried to blackmail doctors by sending his pawns to ask for fraudulent sick leave. All those doctors were also Jews. And he had sent anonymous threat letters or Molotov cocktails to public figures—the president of Doctors Without Borders, Rony Brauman; Jérôme Clément, director of the French cultural channel Arte; lawyer Joseph Cohen-Saban among others, all of whom were Jewish. All these plots had failed, too.

But persistence is the key to success. In January 2006, under the assumption that had driven Fofana from the start, and that he repeatedly stated at his trial three years later—namely, that “all Jews are rich”—he and some of his gang started to pace the Boulevard Voltaire, looking for “Jewish stores.”

France's Toxic Hate

It came down to “Emma the bait,” a k a Yalda, to pick up the victim. The daughter of an Iranian nurse and political refugee, Sorour Arbabzadeh was 17, beautiful, and fleshy. Although obviously smart, she also was still in the 10th grade. In France since 1999, after the death of her father—a violent man, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, who had married her mother by force and reportedly beat Sorour during most of her childhood—she was raped two years later, at 14, by three teenagers of the cité. (A complaint filed by the mother against the boys at the time was soon withdrawn, possibly under pressure of the neighborhood.) The battalion of juvenile court judges, trained caregivers, and social workers who’d followed the girl since then had been unable to prevent her from multiple suicidal attempts.

Sorour, the trial showed, was brought into the gang by Tiffen, a semi-homeless young woman of 20, who was born in Brittany to a Catholic family and then converted to Islam at 15. Out of her devotion to Fofana, Tiffen had found some targets for the kidnappings in the cité for him—some of them among her own friends—but she lacked confidence to play the vamp part and had suggested Sorour instead. In a blink, Fofana was convinced. “I can do marvels with you,” he is reported to have said to Sorour the minute they met.

Immature, manipulative, and manipulated both, Sorour said she accepted Fofana’s proposal to be used as a honey trap as “a favor to him” only—and against the promise of a reward of 3,000 to 5,000 euros. Whether she’d become Fofana’s sexual partner in the meantime, or the girlfriend of some of the other gang members, or both, is unclear to this day (she denies it). Two years after the facts in 2008, while waiting for the trial in jail, she wrote a letter of apology to the victim’s family. In 2009, after the verdict that sentenced her to nine years, she tried to kill herself again, three times. One year later in 2010, Florent Gonçalvez, the director of the prison she was jailed in, was forced to resign, along with a guard, for having fallen in love with her—and giving her preferential treatment.

On Jan. 16, 2006, Sorour entered a cellphone store on the Boulevard Voltaire, where she flirted with a 22-year-old clerk named Ilan Halimi. One hour after the young man gave her his number, she called him to fix a date for a drink four days later, on the 20th at 10 p.m., in the inner south suburb. “He’s nice,” she confided to Tiffen after hanging up, “he’s cute.”

The 20th was a Friday. “It was Sabbath! Sabbath!” Ilan’s mother, Ruth Halimi, told me. A small but strong and maternal woman of Moroccan origins, she has managed to keep her strength and dignity through the whole ordeal thanks, she says, to the comfort of her religion and the support of the Jewish community. (Ruth Halimi has been employed at the Council of Jewish Organizations in Paris for the last 22 years.) “I’m furious with Ilan to this day!” she said, before adding, “Do not get me wrong, he was a great, great kid. He was amazing, the pillar of the house. He played the father role with his sisters since I divorced, a very responsible young man. But I was already pulling my hair out because of this Chinese girlfriend he got. So, what did he need to see this other one for? A Muslim? And a Friday night on top of it?” Well, he was 22.

The said day, he met his new acquaintance for a drink at the Paris-Orléans, one of those gray, anonymous cafés where the ground is strewn with cigarette butts and race tickets and migrant workers from the old generation watch TV. She said she lived alone, offered that he bring her back home. When she arrived, to the gang hidden nearby she gave the proper signal, which was to look in her purse for her keys.

Some months later, after Ilan had been found walking on a railway line, naked and handcuffed, three times wounded by a knife and with two-thirds of his body covered in third-degree burns (he died a few hours after his transportation to the hospital), Sorour told the cops that she heard his shrill voice cry for two minutes as he resisted the gang members who were trying to lock him up in a car trunk. (Students in an adjacent street also saw him from afar, struggling as he was taken by the arms and legs. Because of the high pitch of his cries, they say they took him for a girl playing a joke, and thought of a joke and didn’t call the cops—they would’ve come too late, if ever, anyway.) In tears after the car took off, Sorour found comfort in the kind words of Maurice, another one of the gang members—a computer engineer from Martinique who also had converted to Islam. “This is not your fault,” he told her. “This is all over anyway.”

The cellar of a building in Bagneux, a southern suburb of Paris, where Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old telephone salesman, was held and tortured by Youssouf Fofana, head of the ‘Gang of Barbarians,’ in 2006. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

A bit later that same evening Fofana invited the two of them plus Sorour’s boyfriend Sami—an apprentice model she’d recently met on the Internet—to a cheap restaurant in Montparnasse to celebrate. She had an ice cream. Fofana also offered Sorour and Sami a 109-euro three-star hotel room nearby for the night. Not exactly the 5,000 promised but a good, relaxing time nonetheless. And she did get pregnant that night. So, she spent three weeks—the whole three weeks during which Ilan Halimi was wrapped in tape from foot to head with only a hole left for him to breathe (“He looked like a mummy,” said one of his jailers to the police afterward), nourished with a straw only and left on the ground, first in an empty unheated apartment of the cité, then in the building’s boiler room, which was even colder, untied only to be taken to the toilet, and beaten and burned with cigarette butts out of Fofana’s frustration, since, despite threats and pressure, “the Jews” did not pay—those weeks during which he saw his situation worsen once in the boiler room because then he could only piss in a bottle and defecate in a plastic bag, which infuriated the jailer who had to hold the bag for him and beat him for it—those weeks at the end of which he was cleaned up with cheap soap and water first, and then with acid, because his jailers, inspired by a TV series, thought acid would erase any traces of their DNA, then beaten again, handcuffed, and, put naked in a pair of sheets, was taken out of the building and into the woods only to be stabbed and burned alive by Fofana—those weeks during which the Halimi family was harassed on the phone and the police were at a loss, and every newspaper in the country wondered who the gang of the Barbarians could be—Sorour spent them with one question only (as her text messages to Tiffen indicate): Should she break up with Sami, call Maurice whom she had fallen in love with, and maybe get an abortion in passing, or should she stay with Sami and have his baby?

In April 2009, the Ilan Halimi murder trial opened to the shock of all of France. No less than 29 people stood in the dock—22 charged with kidnapping, torture, and other barbaric acts as well as murder, six for having knowledge of these crimes and not going to the authorities. Among the latter was the concierge of the building, Gilles Serrurier, a 36-year-old French Christian man who appeared at the court in tears, depressive and suicidal; not only had he given Fofana’s gang the key to the apartment where Ilan Halimi had been held but, when it turned out that the place was to be under construction and couldn’t be used anymore, he had opened the building’s boiler room for them; without him, as the state prosecutor remarked, nothing could’ve possibly happened. In his defense, he mentioned his fear of the gang, the habit of kidnappings between dealers in the cité, and his ignorance of the conditions of Ilan Halimi’s detention, which was highly doubtful. It soon emerged that the total of 29 defendants was, in fact, a low number. If one added the friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and sometimes parents of the accused, the total figure of the people who had known, as a journalist noticed, was closer to 50. Given the national attention to the case, just one anonymous phone call to the police during those fatal three weeks would’ve been enough to stop everything.

Jérôme Ribeiro’s parents were a case in point. Ribeiro, also Christian-born, was an unemployed packer who had served as one of Ilan Halimi’s jailers. At some point during his detention the prisoner’s health had begun to weaken and Ribeiro panicked and confided in his girlfriend Leila and then to his parents that he had helped to kidnap someone and that “the guy was not going to make it alive.” Ribeiro’s father Alcino told him to keep silent, and he asked Leila to do the same. Such passive indifference, mixed with the savage, cold sadism of the jailers, raised an obvious, and embarrassing, question: Had the French suburbs become a lawless zone? After all, Ilan Halimi’s abduction was possible, in part, because the police had long ago given up even trying to enter cités like Bagneux.

Ilan Halimi, at 23. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Fofana’s perverse personality added a sinister colorful twist to the case: In February 2006, a few weeks after Ilan Halimi’s death, as the police were arresting most of the gang members, Fofana had succeeded in escaping to the Ivory Coast, where he kept making threatening phone calls to the family. He even succeeded in being interviewed by French TV reporters, who put Fofana on national television, with a proud smile on his face and a girlfriend at his side. To the reporter asking him whether or not he’d killed Halimi, Fofana answered with a studied movie-like ambiguity, “If the guillotine was still around, one may have suggested it for me.” Once extradited and put in jail in France, he had also tried through his lawyer to find a publisher for his memoirs. His wish, if he had succeeded in staying in the Ivory Coast, was to become a war-chief in some African rebellion.

Fofana’s provocations, the cynical coldness with which he spoke of his friends and accomplices (“to me they were just pawns, I used them”)—all this, to the French, seemed to indicate the rise of a new world inside of France’s own territory. The world from which Fofana emerged, and which he seemed to symbolize, was a dehumanized half-medieval, half-21st-century world that had nothing to do with the old, familiar working-class universe that the country was used to. In a piece called “cités, the worst yet to come?” even the left-wing website Rue 89 had to conclude, reluctantly, “We’ve been lucky so far that thugs and future killers of the suburbs haven’t yet dared to use their weapons.” Three years later in Toulouse, Mohamed Merah would prove him right.

Fofana’s lawyer during the early days of the trial, it is worth adding, was Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, 57 years old at the time and still the partner of the ex-pro Algerian lawyer Jacques Vergès, who had defended Klaus Barbie in the 1980s. She was also the wife of the terrorist Carlos, whom she’d married in jail in a Muslim ritual. After Fofana’s trial in 2012, she would become Mohamed Merah’s father’s lawyer, in his attempt to sue the French state for murder after his son’s death. Ironically enough, Coutant-Peyre, who is now currently working for the Iranian minister of culture suing Hollywood film productions that she believes are hostile to Teheran, was the lawyer Fofana chose to challenge on the grounds that she had “a Jewish name” (she isn’t Jewish).

***

Youssouf Fofana’s obsessive anti-Jewish hatred was as genuine as it was unexplainable. His parents, his brother, who appeared as witnesses, seemed as flabbergasted by it as anyone else. His view on the subject, though, had been summarized as early as 2006 by Sorour Arbabzadeh in her interview with the police: “He told us that the Jews are kings, that they eat the money of the state, whereas him, being black and all, is a slave to the state.” It was a stereotype that had begun to be popularized a few years earlier, in the wake of the Second Intifada and the Sept. 11 attacks, by the French comedian Dieudonné (who in 2013 would initiate an unsuccessful petition to free Fofana from jail).

The more passive anti-Semitism of the rest of the gang was no less clear. The crazy amount of money asked for Ilan’s release—450,000 Euros—was based on the assumption that “Jews stick together” and that if the family didn’t have that kind of money, the community at large did. Among the gang, the notion that Jews were an all-powerful enemy was so grounded that after Ilan’s death, one of Fofana’s lieutenants confided he had tried to hide not so much from the police than from “the Mossad” who, in his view, would undoubtedly send a commando to Bagneux to take revenge. In Jérôme Ribeiro’s room, police had also found anti-Semitic leaflets and Nazi-oriented posters.

Still, ever since the story broke, although part of the media fascination with the story was driven by the theme of a rising new anti-Semitism, editorialists and authorities alike had done their best to deny its very existence. The cops from day 1 had insisted in the strictly “villainous” nature of the crime and suggested that speculation about the gang’s anti-Semitic motivation was absurd. “There isn’t a single element to allow one to attach this murder to an anti-Semitic purpose or an anti-Semitic act,” said the investigative magistrate in the days following Ilan’s death. In the same vein, the minister of interior of the time, the future president Nicolas Sarkozy, came up with a new (and, given its lack of meaning, rather untranslatable) notion: “anti-Semitism by amalgam.”

A certain tendency toward Cartesian rationality—the French hubris, as it were—may partly account for such incredulity in the face of obvious facts. The whole thing, to begin with Fofana’s grotesque attitude, was just too preposterous for intelligent minds to deal with. The guy was nuts, his accomplices were weak, and the rest belonged to the “social question.” A more left-wing oriented version of that line of thought can be read in the piece the left-wing senator Esther Benbassa (herself Jewish) published in Le Monde in 2006, arguing that “to emphasize anti-Semitism in this case” would “encourage communautarisme.”

Social concern for the less fortunate, in other words, was the only way to deal rationally with such a horrifically irrational story. To think otherwise would end up reinforcing discrimination, thus ghettoizing French society even more. During the trial, two defense lawyers—Gilles Antonowicz and Françoise Cotta—of Fofana’s accomplices came up with another article expressing, in the same journal, the same idea: “Only people motivated by ‘political reasons,’ ” they wrote, “would try to sell the opinion that anti-Semitism is eating away at French society. As we all know, this plague is, fortunately enough, almost non-existent” in the country. Some years later, Antonowicz dedicated a whole book to the case, in order “to fight the belief that in 2006 a young Frenchman has been killed by a bunch of savages for being Jewish. I write this book,” he added, “out of duty, and at the risk of being called negationist.” This is the classical optimistic rationale of the left.

***

But the deeper reasons for such energetic denial became clear only during the three months (plus the appeal) of the Fofana-gang trial, in 2009. Under pressure from the Halimi family’s lawyer, Francis Szpiner, despite this atmosphere and contrary to his own statement, included anti-Semitism as an “aggravating circumstance” in the case against Youssouf Fofana (but not against the others). But what, exactly, could the judges do? In law, an aggravating circumstance ends up in a more severe sentence than would have been pronounced without it. But Fofana was already facing the toughest sentence that can be applied under French law, which is life in prison. Furthermore, the French Republic does not recognize Jews as members of a community—only individuals.

That Halimi was abducted and killed for being Jewish may have been a sociological fact—but there was no specific sentence to pronounce for that motivation. As a result, the tribunal was confronted with a strange paradox: Because anti-Semitism had been recognized as an aggravating circumstance, it had to be legally ignored. The only other way would have resulted in condemning all the members of the gang to the same sentence—a move that the state prosecutor Philippe Bilger was not ready to make. A typically French psychodrama ensued when, as a consequence to that legal dead-end, an infuriated Szpiner went in front of the media to attack Bilger. Bilger’s father, said Szpiner, had been a Nazi collaborator during World War II. His leniency against Fofana’s accomplices proved him a “biological traitor.”

Boasting he had strong personal contacts in the government, Szpiner added in front of the cameras that he’d do what he had to do to get a better sentence if the verdict did not suit him and his clients. Straight away, in the media and in the public opinion as well, the Jews appeared as being a powerful community above the law, able to get what they wanted from the state. Although it did not radically change the verdict of the first hearing the appeal Szpiner succeeded in obtaining did nothing to challenge that prejudice, to say the least. The final sentences against Fofana’s accomplices ranged from six months to 18 years, plus two acquittals—pretty much what Bilger had required. So, not only could the Jews could get what they wanted from the state, but the final result was much ado about nothing. It seemed to indicate, in other words, and in a remarkable reversal of situation, that Fofana wasn’t so wrong after all. How did we come to such a remarkable reversal—from a clean-cut brutal anti-Semitic murder case to the denunciation of the Jewish lobby?

A historical note is required here. In 2006, when he took the case, Francis Szpiner was the personal lawyer of the then-President of the Republic Jacques Chirac. Between 1995 and 2002, he also had been part of a legal cell at the Elysée Palace, called “the black cabinet,” in charge of the clandestine overview of any politically sensitive case that may have come up against Chirac: That cabinet was led by Dominique de Villepin, the future minister of foreign affairs and hero of the “pacifist” movement against the Iraq war.

Chief of the Gaullist movement, Chirac was the heir to the neo-colonial “arab policy” put together in France in the early 1960s to compensate for the loss of France’s colonies and to ensure the country’s supply of oil and gas. For decades that policy had allowed the political class to act as if they still owned their former colonies. It had also helped in financing political campaigns. But by the time Chirac came to power in 1995, that policy was a joke. Most of the French politicians depended on the Arab regimes, and not the other way around.

What remained of the “Arab policy” were personal friendship with dictators and organized networks of political and financial corruption. Yasser Arafat was a personal friend of Chirac’s. The French president was also intimate with Saddam Hussein, and, in 2004, when the Iraq war came, he and Dominique de Villepin famously stood against it. This was the time when Villepin could openly speak of “the Jews making Washington’s policy.” When Hamas songs could be heard in the pacifist demonstrations of Chirac and Villepin’s supporters. A time where the Jewish ascendancy in the affairs of the world was openly denounced in more than one of those demonstrations at the end of which Jewish citizens were sometimes attacked by the crowd. This was the political atmosphere in the background of the Ilan Halimi case.

One thing one did not want, in such a context, was to see the Halimi family and the Jewish Council to come up with a lawyer who’d hint at a possible moral responsibility. The odds were few, but why take a chance? Instead, what you needed was someone able to implicitly prove that one could be anti-Zionist, without being anti-Semitic. Wasn’t Francis Szpiner the perfect candidate for the job? In 2005, one year before the Fofana trial, and on the Elysée’s request, he had represented the Muslim associations against the magazine Charlie-Hebdo in the case of the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. He had lost. But precisely: Couldn’t he argue against anti-Semitism in the same way? Wouldn’t it distract opinion toward the geopolitical compromises and the corruption that succored the highest levels of the French state? The word among the judicial milieu at the time of the trial was that Szpiner had indeed been chosen on explicit recommendation of the President.

But was Szpiner entirely wrong about the state prosecutor Philippe Bilger? In 2009, the very year of the trial, Bilger published a book comparing the moral “dilemma” of his father (who’d been during WWII in Lorraine one of the most important French leaders of the Deutsche Volksgemeinschaft or DVG, the Community of German People, the Lorraine political organization linked to the Nazi party) to Creon’s tragedy. Of the Halimi’s tragedy, though, he lad less to say. When Ruth, Ilan’s mother, concluded her testimony by saying that the murder of her son was a sign that “the Shoah is starting all over again,” Bilger—apparently unable to see maternal grief in this irrational statement, or himself overcome by a compulsion he could not fight—took the liberty to comment on it on his blog, with two words—“restons calme.” (Let’s keep calm.) That was all, but that was a lot. During the trial, he was himself so calm that he spent a good deal of his time, as prosecutor, trying to “understand” Fofana’s accomplices and their motivations. Of Fofana himself, referring to the French writer Georges Bernanos, he also said that he “dishonored anti-Semitism.”

Caught between the stale remainders of pro-Arab power politics, leftist rhetoric, and the ghosts of World War II, French Jews were beginning their journey into civic loneliness. The neurotic, historical, and ideological dead ends in which the French have dealt with anti-Semitism ever since are an impossible mental context in which to think or simply to live, for the Jews, and for France.

***

Read all five parts of Tablet’s series on French anti-Semitism, France’s Toxic Hate.

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Ilan Halimi’s Tortured Ghost Will Continue Haunting France

In the final part of Tablet’s series on French anti-Semitism, echoes and paradoxes of a gruesome murder