French Police/AP
Youssouf Fofana

Murder Trial in France a Reminder of Racial Unrest in the Banlieue

May 06, 2009 05:59 PM
by Shannon Firth
The trial of a Muslim gang leader accused of kidnapping and murdering a young Jewish man has revived racial and religious tensions in the suburbs of France, reminiscent of the infamous 2005 riots.

Trial Reopens Race Debate in French Suburbs

The trial of Youssouf Fofana, leader of a gang called the Barbarians, and 26 other defendants, began April 29 in France. Fofana is a first-generation Muslim whose parents immigrated to France from the Ivory Coast.

According to The Jerusalem Post, “scuffles broke out between his supporters and Jewish youths who had gathered at the courthouse to voice their outrage over the crime.” 

The simmering racial tension is reminiscent of a period of violent unrest triggered by the death of two young immigrants in 2005. For two weeks, Parisian suburbs convulsed with rioting, fires and looting, and the government was compelled to declare emergency powers.

In February 2006, Ilan Halimi, 23, a cell phone salesman, was kidnapped, tortured and left to die. According to British paper The Guardian, “He was found naked with his head shaved, in handcuffs and covered with burn marks and stab wounds near rail tracks outside Paris.”

His ordeal started three weeks earlier, when an attractive girl lured Halimi to her house on what he thought was a date. It wasn’t a date, and her “house” was actually a gang member’s apartment. Halimi was drugged and his parents were e-mailed a ransom request the next day.
The New York Sun said kidnappers, in the style of Islamist kidnappers in the Middle East, sent a photo of Halimi with a gun pointed at him holding a newspaper to show the date. For 24 days, gang members burned him with cigarettes, poured acid on him, and slashed at his skin.

Although the gang reduced its demands from about $590,000 to $60,000, the ransom was never paid. Just days after ending communication with Halimi’s parents, he was left beside the railroad, south of Bagneux. He died minutes after being found.

While Youssouf Fofana admits he’s responsible for the abduction, he claims he isn’t responsible for Halimi’s murder.

According to The Guardian, prosecutors believe Fofana targeted Jews because he thought they were “loaded,” therefore his actions will be categorized as a hate crime, “an aggravating circumstance” for his charges; if convicted he could serve a life sentence.

Video: Three years later: The housing estates of Bagneux

France 24 visited the neighborhood where Halimi was hidden and tortured. Although many teenagers refused to speak about the incident, other adults were more forthcoming. Pierre Punier, a parish priest, said he knew one of the defendants and that he was a “good student.” Punier told reporters, “I wondered what we could have done … the sense of failure persists.”

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Background: 2005 riots in French suburbs

On Oct. 27, 2005, two immigrant youths, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, were electrocuted in a Clichy-sous-Bois subway station outside Paris. It was rumored that the teenagers were trying to hide from police. Their deaths sparked riots and looting across 30 French towns; the government instituted emergency powers including a curfew for minors.

As the aggression subsided, on Nov. 14, President Jacques Chirac denounced the “poison of racism” and vowed to provide more opportunities for the country’s youth.

Audio: Reasons for the 2005 Riots

Following the 2005 riots, Bernard Henri-Levy, a journalist, book author and philosopher told NPR that there are towns in France where 50 percent of the 18- to 25-year-olds are unemployed. Henri-Levy explained, “There was this tendency to push the problem aside and to leave it to the next generation. At the end of the day, it exploded.”

Opinion & Analysis: "Forgive us our racism"

In an editorial for Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, Goel Pinto notes the stark imbalance of opportunities available to the children of Muslim immigrants in France, compared to those of Jewish children. He also explains that the French government has residual guilt after the actions of the Vichy regime during WWII. Pinto said, “[M]any Jews prefer to wrap themselves in the tallit of victimhood—and the anti-Jewish incidents there give them sufficient ammunition to do so.”

According to Pinto, incidents like the 2005 riots and Halimi’s murder have heightened militant feelings of racism for many of France’s Jews. Pinto feels differently, and makes a request: “The time has come for the State of Israel to place a mirror before France’s Jews.”

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