Crimes without passion

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Today Paris awaits a verdict on Veronique Herbert, accused, like Florence Rey before her, of murder for kicks.

What drove two teenagers to random slaughter? The answer surely lies beyond their ghoulish

fascination with the film Natural Born Killers. It lies deep within France itself

Is there any cause in nature makes these hard hearts?" Or, as Shakespeare might have said, what has got into French girls these days? First there was Florence Rey, convicted last week of four killings in a daze of teenage adulation and anarchist ravings; now there is Veronique Herbert, on trial this week for setting a sexual trap and stabbing 39 times (with her boyfriend) a teenager whom she vaguely fancied but also hated. Florence was 19 at the time; Veronique, 18.

Bizarrely, the two girls have come to know each other well, while awaiting trial in the women's prison at Fleury-Merogis. What did they talk about, you wonder, while Florence wrote and directed the prison plays and Veronique made the scenery?

It would be wrong to build too elaborate a thesis on two such similar but dissimilar cases, yoked together by an accident of the judicial timetable. The murders happened 18 months apart. One grew out of the muddled politics of social alienation; the other from a psychotic obsession with violent books and movies. There is no obvious trend towards mindless murder in France; in fact, there has been a sharp reduction in the number of French murders of all kinds in the last five years.

What is striking, however, is how un-French, and how American, these murders seem. They are suburban, youthful and disjointed, and redolent of sex, random violence and the cinema. For all the French talk of erecting a cultural Great Wall of China against Americanism, the closest you can come in Europe to New Jersey or northern Virginia is the sprawl of dormer- bungalows, malls, fast-food joints and broken marriages that surrounds large French cities - just the kind of background from which both girls came.

At the age of 12, Veronique Herbert wrote a poem called "Soldier": "In the cities where the blood ran, the children will never play again. They were the cities of light, where prisons served no purpose."

At the age of 17, in her attic bedroom in Gournay-sur-Marne, a middle- class ghetto of kilometre upon kilometre of pavillons (squat, suburban houses) east of Paris, she wrote film scripts of bizarre and murderous fantasies. She kept a diary in which she imagined murdering several of her schoolmates at the Lycee Pablo Picasso. She became obsessed with the Oliver Stone movie Natural Born Killers, in which a young couple flee across America in a fast-forward orgy of sex and pointless murders.

The movie is one of several points at which the Herbert and Rey cases overlap. Florence Rey's anarchist boyfriend, Aubry Maupin, had placed a poster for the same film on the wall of the house in which they were squatting in a tough Paris suburb. But he was also reading and writing nihilist tracts that extolled violence; the connection between the American movie and Rey and Maupin's failed robbery and murderous car-chase in October 1994 is far from clear. In Veronique's case, it is central.

In December 1995, Veronique, a highly intelligent girl with Morticia Addams good looks, met Sebastien Paindavoine, a handsome but somewhat gormless 17-year-old, who had dropped out of school to become an apprentice in his father's window-cleaning company. On one of their first dates, she asked him to pose, stripped to the waist, in front of a poster for Natural Born Killers.

It was Sebastien who first suggested that they commit a murder together. However, all the evidence presented to the trial this week (formally speaking on camera, but leaked in advance to the French press) agrees on one point. Once the decision was made, it was Veronique who became obsessed with the project; it was Veronique who threatened to dump the conscience-stricken Sebastien if he did not go through with it; it was Veronique who sketched the plan for a random murder, closely modelled on a scene from her favourite movie.

This is the other great difference with the Rey case. Although Florence Rey may not have been quite the star-crossed love-puppet presented by her lawyers, even the prosecution psychiatric reports agreed that she acted under the influence of a domineering and charismatic first boyfriend. In the Herbert case, the roles were reversed.

The teenagers decided to kill Abdeladim Gahbiche, a 16-year-old Tunisian boy who had been involved in a minor scrape with Sebastien and who appealed sexually to Veronique. One of her schoolmates told investigators that Veronique had confided to her that she "hated Abdel" but also wanted to have sex with him. "She was attracted and fascinated by him but she wanted, at the same time, to destroy him."

On a Saturday evening in March 1996, Veronique and Sebastien came across Abdel in a telephone box. They decided, on the spur of the moment, to set in motion a plan they had discussed over and over.

An astonished Abdel was invited to return with them to Sebastien's house. Veronique told Abdel that she fancied him; if he came along, she would allow him to fondle her sexually. Abdel looked nervously at Sebastien. He said: "It doesn't bother me. She's getting on my nerves by going on about it so much."

They went to Sebastien's basement room. His parents were entertaining upstairs; one of the oddities of the case is that the grown-ups heard and noticed nothing of what happened next.

Abdel wanted Sebastien to leave the room, but he refused. "I stripped to my underclothes," Veronique told investigators later. "I got into the bed. Sebastien was sitting on a chair... Abdel put on some music and was just standing there. He didn't know what to do. I said something to make him come into the bed with me. We kissed. I stripped completely. He asked me if I would do it with him. I told him I didn't want to. Sebastien came nearer and said: `When should I do it?'"

Veronique distracted Abdel so that he would not suspect anything. The younger boy climbed on top of her. Sebastien took one of two knives hidden in the bed and stabbed Abdel in the neck, then stabbed him repeatedly in different parts of his body. Veronique shouted, "finish him", took the second knife and began to stab him too.

Abdel was stabbed 39 times in all. The teenagers told police that they had to stuff his mouth with handkerchiefs to muffle his screams. Unnoticed by the adults upstairs, the couple dug a hole in the garden, dragged Abdel's mangled body outside and buried him under earth and a flagstone. They then washed, changed their clothes and bolted in Sebastien's father's Renault 21. The boy scribbled a note: "Sorry about the car and all the rest."

Living out one of Veronique's cinematic fantasies the young couple fled, first to Le Havre and then south towards the Mediterranean. Three days after the murder of Abdel, they were arrested at Aurillac in Cantal in the Massif Central, after fleeing from a petrol station without having paid.

Like Florence Rey, Veronique Herbert had been successful at school and, seemingly, a quiet and dutiful daughter, before her murderous escapade. Like Florence Rey, she had been disturbed, without displaying it overtly, by family problems. Florence's father had suffered a nervous breakdown and lived apart from the family. Veronique's father - a businessman obsessed with North American Indians, who had converted the interior of the family home into a replica of a log cabin - had split from her mother when she was 15.

In her diary, found at the scene of the crime, Veronique wrote of her hatred for her mother. She remained close to her father, who was convinced that she was a genius. She also wrote: "I want to die or to kill. I want to destroy this thing called reality. Life disappoints me ceaselessly."

In prison, Veronique, like Florence, is said by state psychiatrists and her lawyers to have blossomed into a mature, thoughtful young woman who is horrified and mystified by her actions. The official psychiatric report says that at the time of the crime she entered a world where the borders of the "real and the imaginary became less and less distinct".

In the Forties, George Orwell wrote a famous essay, "The Decline of the English Murder". The typical English murder of the first part of the century, he said, was committed by a dentist or solicitor. It involved poison, money or illicit passion and great cunning. It exuded deep feeling, even tragedy. The modern murder, he complained as early as 1946, was a callous affair of young people robbing and murdering people at random. The English murder had, in effect, become Americanised.

Something similar could be said of the Rey and Herbert cases. The typical French murder - the kind of murder that once captured the popular imagination - was either urban and passionate, or rural and brooding. It was a crime passionnel, or a family massacre, abrupt in the execution but long in the fermentation; or a brutal murder of strangers by a sexually confused peasant. No longer, it seems.

It is as well, however, to introduce a note or two of caution and context. Murder remains relatively uncommon in France, by US standards if not by British ones. Murder is, in fact, becoming much less common. The number of voluntary homicides has fallen steeply during the last five years. There were 1,500 murders in France as recently as 1993; there were 900 last year. In England and Wales there are just under 700 murders a year, for a slightly smaller population; in the US, there are just under 20,000 murders a year. In other words, 20 times as many as France in a population five times as large.

It is absurd to talk of a trend, with the murder rate reducing so sharply (although there has been a disturbing rise in other criminal and violent activity by young women in France). Nevertheless, there is something to be seen in the Orwell parallel. France is no longer - or not just - the immovable France of small villages, Parisian boulevards and extended families having lunch on Sundays which we all - even sometimes the French - like to imagine. These two murders were thrown up from the rootless, changing, cultural kaleidoscope of the real France of the Nineties; not in any simplistic way caused by it, but symptomatic of it and reflecting it. Both were pointless and motiveless murders that grew from the alienation of young people from all the values of society; they were not the result of some great conflict of values and passions.

Florence Rey and Veronique Herbert, by what they did and, perhaps more so, by capturing the popular imagination, point to the moral decline of the French Murder. "Crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them," Orwell complained: they should not be the product of vacant young brains.