Amid dramatic security measures and high tension at France’s Palais de Justice on the evening of July 10, French gang leader Youssouf Fofana mocked his fate. He had just been found guilty of a premeditated murder in 2006 that shocked France for its vicious anti-Semitism. The notorious leader of a multiethnic gang, dubbed The Barbarians, smiled and offered silent applause as the court pronounced his sentence: life in prison.
That response was in line with Fofana’s behavior throughout the two-and-a-half-month trial, in which 27 youths were charged with facilitating and participating in the kidnapping and torture of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old French Jew. When Fofana first appeared in court in April, he shouted “Allah will prevail!” He later fired his lawyers (suggesting that one of them might be Jewish). He insulted judges, threatened the victim’s family members, and even threw a shoe, calling it an "Arab bomb" aimed at the “enemies, the Jews of France.”
The 28-year-old assailant told the court that his birthday was on February 13, 2006—the day the victim died.
Fofana’s responses to basic courtroom questions were surreal. Asked whether he was married, he responded, “My last name is ‘Arab.’ My first name is ‘African Barbarian Salafist Armed Revolt.’” His birth date? The 28-year-old told the court that it was on February 13, 2006—the day the victim died.
The end of the trial offers seeds of closure to the family of Ilan Halimi, whose fate stirred tens of thousands of his compatriots into the streets to protest anti-Semitic violence in early 2006. But it leaves difficult questions about the extent of anti-Semitism in France’s often-disconnected young Muslim underclass—where, as in other parts of French society, some people confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Throw in a confused rage at being excluded from France’s economy or society at large, and it isn’t hard to find roots of the Halimi tragedy.
His nightmare began when a seductive blond French-Iranian 17-year-old girl came into the phone shop where Halimi worked in 2006. She lured him to a meeting place where the Barbarians took him hostage, holding him for several weeks in the basement of a housing project south of Paris. As the trial made clear, the gang believed that because he was Jewish he must be rich. They initially demanded about a half-million dollars in ransom, later reduced to about $5,000.
But the money demands don’t explain why, over the course of 24 days Halimi was frequently beaten by a few Barbarians. At the end, Fofana stabbed him repeatedly, poured flammable liquid onto him and then set him alight. Halimi was found tied to a tree, horribly burned, naked and clinging to life. He was rushed to the hospital, but succumbed to his wounds on the way. Of his leading role in the conspiracy, Fofana said in his final testimony on July 8: “It is better to live one day like a lion than one hundred days as a sheep.”
The shocking case came to light just a few months after massive youth riots set many of France’s most notorious ghettos ablaze. (Many of the rioters were young French Muslims—generally Europe’s most tolerant—who were protesting the accidental death of two teenagers that they blamed on overzealous police.) Over the course of 2006, nearly 3,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel—a substantial jump from previous years, despite a nearly 50 percent decrease in the number of reported anti-Semitic acts in France between 2004 and the end of 2008. A surge in such acts this year—there were 352 in January alone—amid great anger over Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip, could well signal more trouble ahead and a new wave of departures for Israel.
Such a thing would surely please a deranged man like Fofana, who appears unlikely to overcome his sadism and hatred. But some of his co-conspirators appeared to be more open-minded. Following powerful testimony by Halimi’s mother Romain Boulet, one of the accused, Christophe M. (his last name was not given because he was a minor), said, “Through your words, it is as though my mother is facing me.” In fact, Boulet’s testimony, along with photographs of Halimi’s corpse, humanized their Jewish victim so thoroughly that all of the Barbarians except Fofana ultimately sought forgiveness from the family or the court.
This remorse chipped away, ever so slightly, at the maximum sentences the prosecutor had suggested for the other participants in the attack. Twenty-four other defendants were sentenced to between six months and 18 years for crimes ranging from entrapment and failure to assist a person in danger, to sequestration. (Two were acquitted.) The girl who lured Halimi into the trap—she was promised money, but apparently never paid—was sentenced to nine years behind bars, and must serve at least half that time.
The Halimi family thought the court was too lenient, and their lawyer demanded a new trial for several gang members who received less than the sentence that the prosecutor proposed. The defense said, conversely, that they largely thought the sentences were fair and that each gang member had been treated as an individual. (Mindful of the high tension around the case, and of an earlier altercation in which Fofana’s mother was attacked by Jewish activists, court authorities advised one of the two youths who were acquitted not to leave the courtroom.)
The sensitivity of the case was underscored July 13, when the minister of justice, a political appointee, announced that the court would retry 14 of Fofana’s accomplices, seeking slightly longer sentences.
If this polarizing trial offers any sign of hope for France’s future, it comes from one of the young women who was convicted of not reporting Halimi’s kidnapping after she became aware of it. “I was a sheep,” she said, “but I will struggle like a lion to no longer be a sheep."
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He is based in Paris.