Horror Story

A Horror Story of True-Life Anti-Semitism in France

It’s been eight years since the savage torture and killing of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi. A new film lays bare the motives and the meaning of the crime.

It was a ghastly tragedy that rattled a nation and became a byword for anti-Semitism in France. In January 2006, just weeks after riots had set aflame the troubled banlieues and housing projects throughout the country, a single horrific killing exposed an icy violence that was in its way even more shocking. Ilan Halimi, 23, was kidnapped by the self-styled “Gang of Barbarians” and tortured to death because he was Jewish and they thought his family or other Jews would pay for his freedom.

Now eight years on, the story is coming to cinemas in France. Alexandre Arcady’s 24 Days: The Truth About the Ilan Halimi Affair opens Wednesday, the first of two French feature films on the case due out in 2014. And in a nation where Europe’s largest Jewish community is still reeling from the recent fight to censor a notorious comedian spewing anti-Semitic hate, it is bound to touch a nerve.

Indeed, in the wake of the controversy over the dubious humorist Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, which saw his stage shows banned in several French cities in January, the Jewish community has expressed concern that anti-Semitic acts, which were down 31 percent in France last year, could rise.

And when 24 Days director Arcady describes Ilan Halimi as the first person murdered for being Jewish in France since the Second World War, it is lost on no one that he was not the last. During Mohamed Merah’s al Qaeda-inspired killing spree in 2012, the motorcycle-riding gunman slaughtered three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse.

The beginning of the end for Ilan Halimi came on a Friday night in January 2006. He had left his mother’s Paris home after a Shabbat meal to meet a girl at a café. A femme fatale in the truest sense, “Emma”—recruited as bait for Halimi—had first flirted with the affable mobile-phone salesman that very day in the shop where he worked on the Boulevard Voltaire.

She would lure him to a Paris suburb where the gang waited in ambush. They beat him, bound him and stashed him away in an apartment building in the projects. Halimi was held for 24 days, his eyes and face plastered in duct tape, first in a vacant flat, then in a basement boiler room with the building superintendent’s complicity.

When Halimi’s jailers tired of helping their captive relieve himself, they stopped feeding him. He was found barely alive in the woods near a commuter train line, still tied up, naked, and badly burned. He died before the ambulance reached the hospital.

Arcady’s 24 Days tells the story from the perspective of Halimi’s mother, Ruth, based on her 2009 memoir. Savage violence goes largely unseen in the film. Instead, audiences sink into the family’s nightmare: the oppressive barrage of rambling, invective-laced phone calls demanding ransom—more than 600 calls over the course of Halimi’s captivity.

Despite a last act every French viewer will know in advance, the film moves along like a thriller. It catalogues a massive but doomed police investigation through its agonizing near-misses and mistaken hunches.

Ruth Halimi (Zabou Breitman) pleads with cops who keep insisting her son’s kidnapping is purely financially motivated and ignore the anti-Semitic undertones. “Why are you afraid of the truth?!” she cries, convinced the intent is more sinister and her son’s fate is sealed. The detectives are shown telling her that refusal to pay ultimately will protect her son because he’ll be valued as a bargaining chip. Inside a Paris preview screening, a loud “Ha!” could be heard from a pair of audience members at the detectives’ onscreen naiveté.

In fairness, Arcady has put this misapprehension in context. Hot on the heels of the November 2005 banlieue riots, tensions remained high. And a spectacularly embarrassing false alarm not long before that had clouded the authorities’ judgment.

In the summer of 2004, a young woman told police she had been attacked by six young black and Arab men on a suburban Paris commuter train. She claimed the muggers tore her clothes and markered swastikas onto her bare stomach, cut a lock of her hair, and toppled her baby’s stroller. In a nation still riven with guilt over its WWII persecution of Jews, the incident sparked a swift political response from then-President Jacques Chirac. But days later the young woman recanted, eventually explaining she was just vying for her parents’ attention. (That case, too, became the subject of a feature film in 2009, The Girl on the Train, with Emilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve.)

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In fact, the extent to which Halimi’s motley assailants acted out of anti-Semitism would remain a point of contention long after his body was found.

In the event, the Gang of Barbarians eluded the 400 police officers assigned to the case until it was too late. Two dozen men and women would be convicted for their varying degrees of involvement. The gang’s 25-year-old ringleader, Youssouf Fofana, the French-born son of Ivorian immigrants, was captured on the run in Abidjan 10 days after he had stabbed Halimi, doused him with a flammable substance, set him alight, and left him for dead.

In 2009, Fofana was convicted of murder, acts of torture and barbarity, with anti-Semitism an aggravating circumstance. He is serving life in prison with no possibility for parole for 22 years. (He has since been sentenced to several additional years for new crimes including attacking prison personnel and posting videos to YouTube spewing anti-Semitic hate and praising al Qaeda from his cell.)

The comedian Dieudonné was recently acquitted of disseminating a video in which he is shown deriding a “Jewish lobby” and calling for Fofana’s release from prison. A Paris court ruled it could not be proven that Dieudonné personally released the video in April 2010. It did not pronounce on the video’s content.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, while still interior minister last October, visited the set of 24 Days during a scene filmed near the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois train station, where Halimi was found. In February, fresh from his very public showdown with Dieudonné, Valls told the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France at a dinner in Toulouse that he had seen the finished film. “If we do not stop these words that kill and that tear apart our society, there will be other Ilan Halimis,” he warned. President François Hollande held a private screening of 24 Days this month at the Elysée Palace.

The new film’s theatrical release goes some way toward repairing what many saw as an injustice. Both the 2009 trial and a 2010 appeal were held behind closed doors because some of the accused were minors at the time of the events. Halimi’s family and anti-racism groups had pled for public trials, citing their educational value.

A second film by director Richard Berry based on Morgan Sportès’s prizewinning novel Tout, Tout de Suite focuses on the assailants and is expected in September.

But one observer suggests the renewed media interest in Halimi’s case could itself spur resentment. In a new book on what he sees as France’s unhealthy tendency to internalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Pascal Boniface argues that anti-Semitism has in fact declined radically in France over recent decades. The director of France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations suggests Jewish community leaders and the media risk a sort of public fatigue by interpreting anti-Semitic acts out of that context and out of proportion to crimes against other groups. He spotlights the Halimi case as an example of anti-Semitism overexposed to a counterproductive degree.

“We can wager in advance that the films’ release will benefit from media hype,” writes Boniface. “Will they find an audience beyond their community circles? That’s less sure. … A large part of the Jewish community is convinced that the anti-Semitic dimension of Ilan Halimi’s murder has not been mentioned enough, while another large part of public opinion thinks this affair has been overexposed because of its anti-Semitic dimension and many [non-Jewish] parents ask themselves: ‘Would they have talked about this if the victim had been my son?’”

One French journalist, Frédéric Haziza, author of a new book that deems Dieudonné a fascist guru, struck out at Boniface’s take on the Halimi case, calling him a “sorcerer’s apprentice of hate” and an anti-Semitism denier. In turn, a wide palette of French notables responded in Boniface’s defense with a petition rejecting a “climate of McCarthyism” that has collected more than 5,000 signatures. Suffice it to say, eight years after the Halimi atrocity, the case still inflames opinion.

“You are our first ambassadors. Be the ones who lead others, even the reticent, those who might not want to see the film,” Arcady told a crowd at the Paris preview for 24 Days. “Even those who say, ‘Oh la la, Ilan Halimi, that’s a fait divers [a petty news item], stop bothering us with that.’ And seeing the film you will understand that it is not a petty news item. And those who still think that today, they are the ones who really needed to be persuaded to come see the film.”

It opens in France on Wednesday.