The appeal court in Paris duly confirmed on Thursday the dreaded expectation of French Jews who have anxiously followed the legal proceedings in the case of Sarah Halimi, the 65-year-old widow who, on April 4, 2017, was viciously beaten and then thrown to her death from the third floor window of her apartment by one of her own neighbors. The individual in question—Kobili Traoré, a known criminal with 20 previous convictions who frequented one of the French capital’s most radical mosques, the Mosquée Omar—will not face a criminal trial for his atrocious crime, during which he bellowed the Arabic word “Shaitan” (“Satan”) and other anti-Semitic abuse at his helpless victim.
What sort of wisdom led French prosecutors to excuse from trial an individual charged with a crime that became a test case of the country’s willingness to punish anti-Semitic agitation and violence?
The answer to that, in a word, is “cannabis.” Traoré, who was 27-years-old at the time of the murder, reportedly developed a heavy cannabis habit at the age of 14. In many users, frequent ingestion of the drug over such a lengthy period actually builds tolerance against its more psychoactive effects, but Traoré’s constitution was apparently different. On the night that he broke into Halimi’s apartment and murdered her (a few weeks after he had abused her visiting daughter as “dirty Jewess” when passing her on a staircase,) Traoré was allegedly so stoned from his intake of weed that he lost what the French call his “discernement”—in other words, it sent him temporarily insane. And because the weed sent him temporarily insane, Traoré cannot now undergo a criminal trial for the terrible act he committed while under the influence, despite the fact that he both admitted to and apologized for Halimi’s murder in a preliminary court appearance last month.
That this pseudo-scientific nonsense underpins the legal reasoning of the Paris prosecutors is the final and most egregious insult delivered to Sarah Halimi’s surviving relatives. Their decision to excuse Traoré came on the same day, no less, that a judge at a different court in Paris sentenced Didier Lombard, the former CEO of France’s largest telecommunication company, to a year in prison. His crime? Aggressively pursuing staff cuts in 2007 and 2008 that French prosecutors successfully argued caused the suicides of more than 30 company employees. Perhaps if Lombard had confessed to a cannabis addiction at that trying time, the court might have been more lenient with him.
The key point is this. Whatever unfortunate precedents the Traoré decision might appear to herald—drunken drivers who ram into pedestrians being excused trial, meth addicts who rob and kill to support their habit being excused trial, and so on—every sensible person knows that the French legal system is not going down this path. There is no general legal rule in play that could benefit future substance abusers who commit their crimes under the influence. Quite the opposite; this reasoning and this decision exposes the hypocrisy and weakness of the French legal system when it comes to punishing anti-Semitic outrages of even the most bestial kind. What we are being told, in effect, is that there is one standard for French Jews, and another, higher standard for everyone else.
My friend Yana Grinshpun, an expert on anti-Semitism who teaches at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris, points out that a similar defense has been made for the accused in the case of Mireille Knoll, the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who was beaten and then burned to death in her Paris home less than a year after Halimi’s ordeal. “There is a clear denial of the anti-Semitic motive of these acts, and the psychiatric diagnosis of the murderers makes them ‘irresponsible’ for their crimes,” Yana told me in an email on Friday. “The same happened with Mireille Knoll’s murderer: not guilty because of being ‘unstable’ or under the effect of some illicit substance.”
According to Yana, Kobili Traoré will be given his freedom. He will not be allowed to approach the location of his crime—the public-housing project in eastern Paris where he and Halimi both lived—but neither will he be prevented from using cannabis again or from approaching any Jew he happens to encounter. “He is trusted by the court,” emphasized Yana. “That means that the rights of the murderer and his liberty are above the rights of citizens to be protected from these crimes.”
Ultimately responsible for this travesty of justice, in Yana’s view, is a dominant discourse in France that refuses to acknowledge that Muslims like Traoré can be practitioners of racism and bigotry, and at the same time be targets themselves.
“The discourse held by the media and today by the French law prefers to set free the murderers of the Jews, and to instead put on trial those of us who point out that anti-Semitic discourse has become part of the everyday culture in some Muslim neighborhoods,” she wrote. “The discourse that explains that France suffers from Islamophobia and protects its ‘victims.’ A victim of racism cannot be considered as a murderer of Jews.”
Not surprisingly, this grim analysis leads to a devastating conclusion—perhaps fittingly, given that we are at the end of a year that has again witnessed a steep rise in anti-Semitic hate crime in France. “To free Kobili Traoré opens the door to pogroms, with a strong chance that future pogromists won’t ever face trial,” wrote Yana. “Dark days are coming back.”
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.