Adam Ash

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

International desk: France in total twitch about horrible hate crime by Muslims

Barbarians Inside the Gate -- by MATTHEW KAMINSKI

PARIS -- In life, Ilan Halimi sold cellular phones on a boulevard named after Voltaire, off a square dedicated to la République. He was an ordinary young Frenchman, except for one thing; he was Jewish, which got him killed. So in death, after 25 days of torture, Ilan Halimi became a symbol of this Continent's failures in dealing with its poor and maladjusted Muslims.

His story is shaking France in a deeper, possibly more lasting, way than the recent riots or the ongoing fracas over the Muhammad cartoons. Last week, on a Monday morning, Ilan was found naked, handcuffed, with burns and bruises over 80% of his body, stumbling on train tracks in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, south of Paris. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Each detail of his kidnapping and ordeal that emerged in the past week fed widespread popular outrage.

On Jan. 20, the 23-year-old Ilan, depicted here, went for a rendezvous with a young woman he met at his store and fell right into the hands of his kidnappers. In the previous month, this group tried to entrap six other men, four of them Jewish, using women as bait. Ilan was whisked to the cité de la Pierre-plate, a large housing project in Bagneux, a Paris suburb (or banlieue ) that's home to immigrant and French lower-middle-class families. In an empty third-floor apartment and later a basement utility room, he was tortured to death. Several times, as Nidra Poller this week reported in the Journal's European editorial pages, the kidnappers called Ilan's family and read them verses from the Quran while their son screamed in agony in the background. Their demands for ransom from Ilan's modest parents never turned out to be serious.

Once unmasked, the identity of these barbarians came as no surprise. The police believe that up to 15 young men and women from the banlieue, maybe more, took part. These "youths," a French euphemism, grew up together in Bagneux. The gang is a mixed lot. Most, but not all, are Muslims born in France to Arab or African parents of limited means. In their raids, police found Islamist literature and documents supporting a Palestinian aid group. But last year's bonfires of cars set by similar "youths" showed that the bonds formed among the delinquents of the projects often transcend religion or ethnicity. That doesn't make the "gangrene" in French society, in the acid words of the left-leaning Libération yesterday, any less difficult to live with.

As it happens, the gang that murdered Ilan Halimi calls itself the "Barbarians." The crime was orchestrated by their leader Youssouf Fofana, a 26-year-old Muslim with a criminal past who refers to himself as the "brains of the Barbarians." On the run for a week, he was arrested late Wednesday in the Ivory Coast, the birthplace of his parents. Fofana told the Ivorian police that Ilan Halimi was kidnapped because Jews "have money"; he denies that he or his accomplices were motivated by hatred for Jews, specifically . By all accounts, Fofana is a vicious thief, and now admitted killer, who could never keep a job and, according to one acquaintance quoted in the French press, "spent all his time with kids of 16-17, around whom he could feel superior."

This murder dredges up the ghosts of French anti-Semitism past (Dreyfus, Vichy), but that's more than a trifle unfair. The police and media early on downplayed the racial motive, fearing as is their habit these days a backlash from Muslims, yet soon changed their tune. Now the whole establishment is united in condemning what the government calls an "anti-Semitic hate crime." The French president, prime minister, head of the biggest mainstream Muslim organization, the archbishop of Paris and the leader of the Socialist opposition stood together at a Thursday night memorial ceremony for Ilan at a synagogue in Paris. Hundreds marched in Bagneux, in the words of a banner, "against barbarism, anti-Semitism and racism." Home to 600,000 Jews, the most of any European country, France has succeeded in reducing anti-Semitic violence, which peaked in 2004.

Yet France's bigger worry is its Muslim population of five million, also Europe's largest. So it's not the anti-Semitism but the crime itself and the profile of the perpetrators that best explain the national revulsion. To put it bluntly, Ilan Halimi, many people here figure, could just as easily have been a Christian.

Since the riots petered out in early November, the country, contrary to impressions, hasn't been calm. On New Year's Day, a gang of some 40 young, mostly Arab men terrorized a Nice-Lyon train, sexually assaulting and robbing passengers, car by car. A female applied arts teacher in a Paris banlieue was repeatedly stabbed this December by one of her male students during class; in the schools dominated by kids of immigrants, teachers often report being intimidated or attacked by their pupils. And cars continue to burn nightly, if in fewer numbers.

With each incident a gulf widens between a political elite whose first instinct is to appease and tolerate the rot in its midst and the hardening of popular views about crime, immigration and Islam. The clever politician, like Nicolas Sarkozy or, out on the extremes, populists like Jean-Marie Le Pen, makes sure to be on the side of the voters. This split is apparent too in the war over the cartoons. Europe's establishment prostrated itself before the Islamic radicals, while its press and people were on the whole appalled by the assault on freedom of expression. Knowing which way the wind blows, Mr. Sarkozy pointed out that he for one preferred "an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship."

Will Ilan Halimi be the wakeup call for France that the riots failed to be? An editorial in Le Monde, the voice of the French establishment, called his murder "a crime of an era, a sort of looking glass onto the true state of our society." No one here will as a result rush to aid America's global war on terror in Iraq or elsewhere. But the Europeans are in many ways in a bigger pickle than the U.S. The gravest threat to their safety and way of life comes not from across an ocean but just down the street.


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