John Lichfield: This anti-Semitic attack is terrifying


A young man is picked up by a pretty girl, abducted, savagely tortured, stabbed and left to die. This did not happen in Iraq or in Colombia or in Brazil but in France, last week. Ilan Halimi was Jewish, a mobile telephone salesman in Paris. His death has generated an anguished debate about the "new" anti-Semitism: the gut hatred of Jews, not on the far right, but among the deprived, multiracial youth of the banlieues, the poor suburbs which surround French cities.

The police insisted, at first, that the kidnap gang's motive was financial: to extort money from M. Halimi's not-especially-rich family. If so why the three weeks of torture? The young man was found, dying in agony, with burn marks and cuts covering 80 per cent of his body.

His family was convinced from the beginning that their tall, handsome, 23-year-old son was the victim of an anti-Semitic crime. A couple of days ago the two magistrates investigating the case decided that M. Halimi's family was right.

Nine alleged members of "The Barbarians," the gang which kidnapped M. Halimi, have been accused of abduction but also of "pre-meditated murder for ethnic, racial or religious reasons". The self-proclaimed "Brain of the Barbarians", Youssouf Fafana, 26, has fled to his native Ivory Coast.

His gang are mostly boys and girls from a public housing estate in Bagneux, west of Paris. Some, like M. Fafana, are black. Others are of Arab origin. Some are white. In other words, the gang closely resembles the background, age and racial mixture, of the kids who set fire to 12,000 cars during the suburban riots across France in November.

Much nonsense has been written and broadcast about these riots, which were not "Islamic" or even racial in the strict sense of the word. The kids involved were black, brown and white. They were driven by anger at their - admittedly partly racist - exclusion from mainstream French society.

Anyone who has spent time in the banlieues will know that they are not race ghettoes but social ghettoes where different races are accepted reasonably well. All, that is, except for Jews.

The "fuijs" or "feujs" (backward slang for juifs) have become an object of hate-filled fantasy among suburban youths (and not just youths). This is partly because the otherwise apolitical, suburban kids identify with the Palestinian cause. They also have the grotesque conviction that all Jews are super-rich and conspire to prevent other ethnic minorities from rising in French society.

French authorities now admit that anti-Semitism was a "factor" in the torture and murder of M. Halimi. They insist, however, that the main motive of the Barbarians was money, not race or politics. One police officer said: "If this gang had heard that all Martians were rich they would have tried to capture a Martian." This was meant to be reassuring. It is not. It is terrifying. The gang abducted M. Halimi for money. They casually tortured him for three weeks because he was Jewish.

M. Halimi's cruel death carries a much greater potential for racial conflagration than the November riots. Already, during a protest demonstration in Paris last weekend, radical and brainless young Jews attacked black and Arab bystanders.

A large anti-racism demo is planned this weekend. President Chirac is under pressure to lead the march - something almost unheard of for a President. He should polish his walking shoes.

It takes one to know one

Ségolène Royal, who wants to be the first woman president of France, has a new fan. Bernadette Chirac says that Mme Royal, right, has the right "look" (she used the English word) to win the presidential election next spring.

Mme Chirac is a shrewder (if unelected) politician than, say, the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin. Her judgement is generally sound, even though her own "look" has sometimes been ridiculed. The beautiful, elegant Mme Royal, on the opposite side of French politics, currently tops the polls of centre-left contenders. "She could be a serious candidate. She might even win," Mme Chirac said.

The extended comments of the "première dame" sound like those of a career wife wishing she had been born 20 years later. "In the future," she said, "women will be bossing men around more and more. This will be a nuisance for the men, but there you are."

Perhaps she was thinking about the relationship between one particular man and woman when her husband retires (probably) next year.

* Talking of women in politics... Word has reached Paris that the new German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was rude about President Chirac, and the French, when she dined with Tony Blair last week. She is said to have told Mr Blair that the only reason why successive German governments have entertained a special EU relationship with Paris was "because they didn't trust the French if left on their own".

A word of caution, however. Several German leaders have come to power believing they should loosen ties with Paris and strengthen those with London. They have soon changed their minds. A senior German official once told me: "We would much rather deal with the British because the French are always so bloody awkward. The problem is that the British can never deliver anything in Europe. We have no choice but to deal with the French."

Maybe that's what Ms Merkel meant.

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