Not for the first time in France the death of a Jew is dominating the news, and not for the first time there are whispers of an attempted cover-up.
Several candidates in Sunday’s election have paused from their campaigning to air their views on the death of Jeremy Cohen, a 31-year-old who was struck by a tram in Seine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris. The candidates portrayed by the commentariat as ‘extreme right’ were the most direct. ‘Did he die because he was a Jew?’ tweeted Eric Zemmour, himself a Jew. ‘Why is this case hushed up?’ Marine Le Pen also wondered on social media if ‘what was presented as an accident could be an anti-Semitic murder’. Then she tweeted what many Jews in France will be thinking ‘How to explain the silence on this affair and its motivations?’ The Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan claimed the ‘violence was hidden for pre-electoral reasons’.
When Cohen, who according to his family suffered from a non-visible handicap, was killed on the night of 16 February the police investigation concluded that his death was an accident. On Monday evening his family released video footage in which some of Jeremy’s last moments are seen. They are disturbing. Surrounded and jostled by a 15-strong mob, Cohen is then seen running away towards the oncoming tram.
Cohen wore a kippah and his family claim he was targeted because of his faith. ‘Jeremy’s death is linked to an attack of which he was the victim – by a gang of young people immediately before being hit,’ said Gerald Cohen, in an interview with Radio Shalom, a French-Jewish radio station.
Cohen’s brother has criticised the police for closing the case too quickly. ‘A few days after my brother died, we were told that the case was being looked at as a traffic accident rather than an attack before they even watched video footage from the train and other evidentiary material,’ he is quoted as saying.
Had it not been for the determination of the Cohen family to investigate the exact circumstances of Jeremy’s death it would probably have remained an ‘accident’. They handed out leaflets and asked for information and eventually someone sent them the video footage.
Prosecutors in Bobigny, who initially dismissed any religious element to the death, have reopened the inquiry. Meyer Habib, an MP, told the Times of Israel that he been assured by Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, that the government is ‘taking this case very seriously and that it is under the examination of the Justice Ministry’.
It hadn’t escaped Habib’s notice that the footage of Jeremy Cohen was released five years to the day since Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman, was brutally killed in her Paris apartment by her neighbour as he screamed ‘Allahu Akbar’.
Her killer, Kobili Traoré, subsequently escaped trial after France’s highest court of appeal ruled that he was not criminally responsible for his actions. The judges ruled that Traoré had been undergoing a ‘psychotic episode’ because of cannabis consumption. Many in France were appalled by the decision, among them the writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of several intellectuals to sign an open letter. ‘It’s always the same story in France,’ said Lévy. ‘Anti-Semitism is not supposed to exist, especially among minority communities.’
As I wrote in Coffee House last November, the persecution of Jews in France has continued and, according to a report earlier this year, anti-Semitic incidents in the Republic increased by 75 per cent in 2021.
This latest tragedy has broken at an inconvenient moment for Emmanuel Macron; according to press reports the Élysée has been in contact with the Cohen family to offer their condolence and their support. Yet only last Saturday at a campaign rally attended by 30,000 supporters Macron’s message was one of unity and optimism, the antidote to the divisive negativity of ‘extremists’ such as Zemmour and Le Pen.
The far-right bogeyman is routinely brought out by centrists at election time in France. Le Pen and Zemmour, however, believe the menace of anti-Semitism is the real bogeyman stalking France.
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