An elderly Jewish woman is brutally killed in Paris, and the suspect is Muslim: terrorism, anti-Semitism or something else?
What happened to Sarah Halimi resembles the plot of a horror film.
In the early hours of April 4, the 65-year-old retired doctor and schoolteacher, an Orthodox Jew, was asleep in the modest apartment in northeastern Paris where she lived alone. Shortly after 4am, a neighbour from the floor below, 27-year-old Kobili Traoré, a Franco-Malian Muslim, is accused of having broken into her flat. Traoré allegedly beat her to death and hurled her body off the balcony into the courtyard below.
In the days that followed, French authorities treated Halimi’s murder as an isolated incident. But Jewish leaders immediately protested, especially after other neighbours testified that they heard Traoré scream “Allahu akbar” while allegedly attacking Halimi, who was the only Jew residing in the building, her family said. Ever since, the “Halimi Affair” has simmered on the margins of public discourse, boiling over last week when President Emmanuel Macron promised - after months of saying nothing - “clarity on the death of Sarah Halimi.”
In a country that has suffered a devastating slew of attacks in recent years, that “clarity” now means far more than the gruesome details of one particular case. At stake is a set of profound questions, as political as they are existential. What makes an act of violence a “terrorist” attack? And who decides what is terrorism and what is merely murder?
Strictly speaking, French law classifies as terrorism any grave act of violence whose individual or collective intent “is to seriously disturb public order through intimidation or terror”.
Legally, it is France’s chief public prosecutor for Paris who decides whether to launch a terror investigation. In the Halimi case, François Molins, who occupies that position, declined to consider it as terrorism - and, initially, as an act of anti-Semitic violence.
The decision sent shock waves through the French Jewish community, Europe’s largest. For many, it evinces a political calculus that weighs certain attacks over others.
“It’s purely and simply ideological,” said Gilles-William Goldnadel, a lawyer for the Halimi family and a well-known conservative commentator for France’s Le Figaro newspaper. Of Kobili Traoré, Goldnadel added the following: “He had the profile of a radical Islamist, and yet somehow there is a resistance to call a spade a spade.”
In general, the definition of the term “radical Islamist” remains a major debate in France.
In this case, neighbours testified that they heard Traoré recite verses from the Koran in Halimi’s apartment. Then, in early June, Libération, a French newspaper, gained access to the police dossier on Traoré, which suggested he had a record of petty crime and violent tendencies almost identical to those that have characterised the profiles of other terrorist suspects.
On a different level, other small-scale incidents - even ones that experts see as comparably minor - have instantly been classified as terrorism. In June, for instance, a man attacked police officers near Notre Dame cathedral in Paris with a hammer. Whereas Traoré is believed to have yelled “Allahu akbar,” the assailant in this earlier case yelled, “This is for Syria!” In any case, the Notre Dame incident - in which no one was killed - was considered terrorism.
So was the killing of a police officer on the Champs Elysées on the eve of the French election in late April, as well as an attempted shooting at Paris’ Orly Airport in March. But not the murder of Sarah Halimi.
The office of François Molins did not return a request for comment.
The difference, for some security analysts, is that these other cases were all defined by some discernible motivation of public disturbance, targeting as they did busy thoroughfares and transit hubs.
“The simple fact that someone killed someone else because of confession or religion is not enough,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, a Paris-based think tank. “It needs to have a certain degree of willingness to disrupt the French public order.”
For Sarah Halimi’s family, however, that she was thrown off a balcony into a public space presented a dark spectacle meant to be seen - and to pose a clear threat to other Jews.
In an interview, Halimi’s brother, William Attal, 62, said that the family’s principal objective was securing public recognition of the anti-Semitism that, in their eyes, killed their mother, sister and grandmother.
As Attal put it: “I want you to understand that the fight of this family is that people recognise the Islamist, anti-Semitic nature of the assassin, who massacred and killed a Jewish woman, whom he knew was a Jew and whom he knew was alone.”
In the French Jewish community, the Halimi Affair provides what many consider yet another example of the French state refusing to acknowledge the realities of contemporary anti-Semitism in France.
For many, this affair harks back to another Halimi Affair, from 2006, when Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old cellphone salesman who had no relation to Sarah Halimi, was abducted and murdered by the “Gang of Barbarians,” a gang of immigrant criminals from the Paris suburbs. They had targeted their victim merely because he was Jewish, which French authorities initially refused to recognise.
“These ostrich politics must stop, and our leaders must become aware of what is happening in the country,” read a recent letter signed by 17 prominent French intellectuals in the aftermath of the latest Halimi Affair.
“It’s always the same story in France,” said the journalist and public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, another advocate of Halimi and her family, in an interview. “Anti-Semitism is not supposed to exist, especially among minority communities.”