For French Jews, Naming Streets and Laws After Sarah Halimi Isn’t Enough

Members of the community tell Haaretz that legal reform is needed to address antisemitic attacks, while others vow to continue fighting to bring Halimi’s killer to justice

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A Franco-Israeli woman raising a placard during a rally in front of the French Embassy in Tel Aviv earlier this week. The message says "J'accuse" and "Justice for Sarah."
A Franco-Israeli woman raising a placard during a rally in front of the French Embassy in Tel Aviv earlier this week.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon

PARIS – For four years, French Jews complained that the mainstream media and public were ignoring the murder of Sarah Halimi. They charged that no one but the Jewish community cared that a 65-year-old Jewish woman had been beaten and thrown out of a window of her third-floor home while her killer reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar,” recited verses from the Koran and called her Satan.

But after a weekend of protests against the High Court’s decision not to prosecute Kobili Traoré, few are ignoring the case anymore.

Many non-Jews, including top Muslim and Christian religious leaders, have voiced concern about the ruling, which is dividing French society. Was the court right to say Traoré was unfit to stand trial because he was in a “delirious state” caused by marijuana use, leading him to kill his Parisian neighbor? Or was it actually an antisemitic attack that should still be recognized as such, even though there is no higher legal jurisdiction than the High Court? Should France change its law on criminal responsibility in light of the case?

The court dismissed the case after three groups of experts diagnosed that Traoré suffered a psychotic attack on the day he killed Halimi and that he wasn’t conscious of his actions. He admitted he had pushed her out of the window. Unlike previous similar cases, the psychiatrists said his psychosis resulted from heavy drug use and they were divided on whether he was mentally ill.

French President Emmanuel Macron was among those who criticized the court’s decision, saying it was unacceptable that “people can take drugs and turn ‘crazy’ and then be deemed not responsible.”

“France will never judge the mentally insane, but one must also draw conclusions from the High Court saying that there is no legal basis to distinguish cases in which individuals’ consciousness was lost due to voluntary drug use,” said Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti, who is also one of the country’s best-known criminal defense lawyers. He said Sunday he will present a bill next month to fix the legal vacuum regarding the consequences of the voluntary use of drugs.

Many Jews believe that a legal reform would guarantee that cases similar to Halimi’s would not be dismissed in the future.

“There was a lack of justice for Sarah Halimi, a complete judicial failure. But if the new law passes, then thanks to Sarah Halimi there will be justice for other victims. We hope there will be no [more victims], of course,” said Jonathan Behar, who organized protests calling for Traoré to stand trial.

“The law should carry Sarah Halimi’s name, so that even if she doesn’t get justice, her plight will be acknowledged and remembered,” he said.

Protesters demonstrating in front of the Consulate General of France in Los Angeles earlier this week.Credit: APU GOMES - AFP

Halimi’s family has long accused the police of botching the criminal investigation into her death in April 2017. “There was no reconstruction of the murder, the killer’s cellphone was not examined, the fact Traoré spent so many hours in Paris’ Omar mosque – known for its radicalism – was never explained, and I have talked to neighbors who witnessed the attack and they told me the police haven’t even questioned them,” Halimi’s brother, William Attal, told Haaretz.

One of Attal’s legal representatives, Muriel Ouaknine-Melki, said she still hopes to reverse the High Court’s decision by presenting new facts about Halimi’s killer.

Along with the Halimi family and others in the Jewish community, Ouaknine-Melki believes Traoré fooled the experts and was not suffering a psychotic attack when he attacked Halimi. Instead, they believe that the killing was planned. During Sunday’s protest in Paris attended by over 20,000 people, Ouaknine-Melki told the crowd she intends to prove that.

“Will changing the law make a difference for Sarah Halimi?” she asked them.

“No,” the crowd responded.

“We need this trial to be revised. The battle continues!” she added.

During the Paris protest, some went as far as to call the High Court decision as unjust as the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus – the Jewish officer who was framed for treason at the end of the 19th century, in the most infamous antisemitic incident in French history.

People holding placards during a protest in Lyon this week against the decision that Sarah Halimi's killer was not criminally responsible.Credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES - AFP

Lenient court rulings

For many French Jews, the Halimi verdict is the latest development in how the French authorities are handling – or as they see it, failing to handle – antisemitic crimes.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo suggested renaming a street for Halimi, but Francis Kalifat, the head of Jewish umbrella group CRIF, believes this only highlights a bigger problem. “It’s a way of remembering Sarah Halimi, but we can’t have all of these Paris streets named after victims,” he said, referring to gardens and alleyways named for people killed in antisemitic attacks such as Ilan Halimi, murdered in 2006, and three children killed in a Toulouse Jewish school attack in 2012.

Many in the community argue that lenient court rulings in antisemitism cases are leading to more violence. “Education and justice are the two pillars in the fight on hatred and violence,” Kalifat told Haaretz. “But education, though crucial, will only bear results in a generation. To resolve violence, antisemitism and hatred today, applying the law in an exemplary way is the only option,” he said

Since the Halimi criminal case was dismissed, various contradictions have emerged. One of them is the prosecution’s pledge to keep Traoré in a mental institution.

Five of the seven court-appointed psychiatrists who diagnosed his condition wrote in an op-ed over the weekend that though he was not sick before Sarah Halimi’s murder, it is possible that his initial psychosis was the first symptom of a mental illness he may have subsequently developed.

They wrote that he will be kept in hospital until several medical teams say he is no longer a threat to society and authorities approve his release.

Kalifat pledged that his organization will be following proceedings closely.

“The judges say they’re proud that France doesn’t try people who were not conscious of their actions. That is a fundamental principle. But how can they keep a person who is mentally sane in a psychiatric hospital for many years?” Kalifat asked. “Since this case has been dismissed, it’s likely that the defense will ask for Kobili Traoré’s release. We will be vigilant if and when that request comes through.”

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