L’Affaire Sarah Halimi and “Reefer Madness” in Postcolonial France: Part I

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. 

In early April 2017, Kobili Traoré, a 27-year old Malian immigrant, murdered an elderly Orthodox Jewish woman named Lucie “Sarah” Attal-Halimi in the Belleville neighborhood of northeastern Paris. Neighbors who witnessed the attack told police that Traoré appeared “crazed,” repeatedly called Halimi a “Jewish devil,” and shouted “Allahu Akbar” and Koranic verses as he violently beat her, then threw her from a 4-story window to her death. After his arrest Traoré claimed he remembered nothing from the night in question and felt “possessed by a demonic force” after “smoking too much cannabis” throughout the day leading up to the assault.

Screenshot 2019-05-30 08.36.02

Sarah Halimi, from The Times of Israel

In the now over two years since Halimi’s murder, the French court has wavered in its official opinions on Traoré’s sanity and thus criminal culpability. Initially, François Molins, prosecutor in Paris’s second district, argued that the attack did not constitute an anti-Semitic hate crime and declared Traoré unfit for trial as a result of an acute episode of cannabis-induced psychosis, a decision he largely based on an initial and somewhat ambiguous psychiatric evaluation produced by Dr. Daniel Zagury, the same psychiatrist who established the legal culpability of Salah Abdselam, mastermind of the November 2015 Paris attacks, and dozens of other ISIS-inspired and -trained terrorists detained in France.[1] In his report, Zagury wrote, “Today, it is common to observe, during delusional outbreaks…in subjects of the Muslim religion, an anti-Semitic theme: The Jew is on the side of evil, of the devil. What is usually a prejudice turns into delusional hatred.” Traoré’s murder of Halimi, he thus concluded, “constituted a delusional if anti-Semitic act.”[2]

However, after significant public protests and backlash in the French media led by prominent intellectuals and the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juive de France (Crif), the judge assigned to the case, Anne Ihellou, re-classified Halimi’s murder as an anti-Semitic hate crime in February 2018. But an additional psychiatric evaluation ordered by the same judge and completed in March 2019 reconfirmed that Traoré was unfit to stand trial as a result of a “bouffée délirante aiguë d’origine exotique,” roughly translated as an “acute delusional puff” induced by heavy cannabis consumption.[3] As a result Traoré will face no criminal prosecution for murdering Halimi and will instead remain remanded in a psychiatric hospital. And the issue of the whether or not the murder constituted a hate crime, as the court put it, is now officially “inaccessible to penal sanction.”[4]

At the center of “L’Affaire Sarah Halimi,” of course, is a tragic murder and quite possibly a hate crime reflective of an alarming rise in anti-Semitism in France and across the West in recent decades. As the Washington Post recently reported, “major and violent” anti-Semitic incidents rose by over 13 percent worldwide in 2018, with most of these incidents occurring in the U.S, France, Germany, and Canada.[5] France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population (~500,000, or .75% of the total French population) and third largest concentration of Jewish people in the world, witnessed a 74% rise in anti-Semitic crime in 2018,  an increase from 311 incidents in 2017 to 541 in 2018.[6] A majority of these incidents involved vandalism, such as the desecration of Simone Veil’s grave and image with spray-painted swastikas, and threats of violence against Jewish French citizens and institutions made online by far-right bloggers.[7]

But coupled with these more insidious, indigenous, and populist strains of anti-Semitism in France with roots stretching back centuries—which elsewhere have escalated into mass murder, as at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on 27 October 2018—is a growing narrative and reality in France of a “nouvelle antisémitisme” emanating from elements of the nation’s Arabo-Muslim population (~5.7 million, or 8.8% of the total French population) and characterized by violent,  public attacks.[8] Several examples of Arabo-Muslim people assaulting Jewish people in France in recent years, and some of them linked to religious extremism and terrorism, do lend a certain credibility to this narrative. The killing of Ilan Halimi by Youssouf Fofana in 2006, Mohammed Merah’s attack on French soldiers (most of whom were Muslim) and murder of three students and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, Amedy Coulibaly’s murder of four customers during his siege of a Hypermarcher kosher in Paris in January 2015, Moussa Coulibaly’s February 2015 attack on French soldiers at a Jewish community center in Nice, the stabbing of a Jewish teacher in Marseille by three assailants wearing ISIS shirts in November 2015, and the attack of another Jewish teacher in Marseille in January 2016 by a machete-wielding 15-year old of “Turkish and Kurdish origin” together formed the bloody backdrop of Traoré’s murder of Sarah Halimi in April 2017,  making it difficult to deny instances of anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by Muslims in France. And though the French government officially stopped recording and reporting the racial and religious backgrounds of perpetrators of anti-Semitic crime in 2011, academic studies authored by researchers on both sides of the Atlantic since have found that “individuals of Muslim background statistically stand out among perpetrators of anti-Semitic violence in Western Europe” and “attitude surveys corroborate this picture in so far as anti-Semitic attitudes are far more widespread among Muslims than among the general population in Western Europe” and especially Germany, Britain, and France.[9]

Put simply, intercommunal tensions between Muslim and Jewish people in France are very real and both presently and historically problematic.[10] And Traoré’s murder of Sarah Halimi taps into and flows from this problematic history of France’s treatment of Muslim and Jewish people, a history that stretches back to the colonization of Algeria during the middle 19th century. But in this instance the French court and court-appointed psychiatrists are ignoring this history and arguably shirking responsibility for centuries of colonial treatment toward both groups that largely underpin the real and imagined conflicts between Muslim and Jewish people living in France today.  Instead, the court is pulling from another facet of the nation’s problematic history: that is, a centuries-old idea in France linking cannabis consumption to supposed higher rates of insanity and violent criminality among Muslims to both explain and excuse the criminality and anti-Semitism of Halimi’s murder.

As it is getting late and I’m going beyond my usual word count, I’ll draw this to a temporary close. In the second part to this post (which will appear next month) I will discuss how the court’s decision to use a diagnosis of “reefer madness”—bouffée délirante aiguë (BDA)—to explain away antisemitism and intercommunal tensions between Muslim and Jewish people in France marks yet another attempt by French authorities to blame cannabis-based intoxicants for the ills of its (post)colonial society. From as early as the 1850s, psychiatrists working for criminal courts in French Algeria often cited hashish consumption as the cause of criminality and insanity among North Africa’s indigenous Muslim population. I will trace the rise of  the medico-legal designation of “folie haschichique” in French colonial psychiatry and law during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and show how it paved the way for the creation of BDA and its use in metropolitan France around the same time to diagnosis acute episodes of psychosis and violence, particularly among intoxicated colonial subjects and citizens inside the metropole.

NOTES:

  1. Annabelle Azadé and Mitch Prothero, “Meet The Man Who Goes Inside The Minds of ISIS,” Buzzfeednews.com (23 April 2018): https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/mitchprothero/inside-the-mind-of-isis-a-french-psychiatrist-talks-about
  2. Quoted in Louise Couvelaire, “Meurtre de Sarah Halimi: Une deuxième expertise conclut à l’abolition du discernement du suspect,” Le Monde (11 juillet 2018): https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2018/07/11/meurtre-de-sarah-halimi-une-deuxieme-expertise-conclut-a-l-alteration-du-discernement-du-suspect_5329950_3224.html
  3. “Meurtre de Sarah Halimi: une nouvelle expertise conclut à l’irresponsabilité du suspect,” Le Monde (18 mars 2019): https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2019/03/18/meurtre-de-sarah-halimi-une-nouvelle-expertise-conclut-a-l-irresponsabilite-du-suspect_5437989_3224.html
  4. Quoted in Louise Couvelaire, “Meurtre de Sarah Halimi: Une deuxième expertise conclut à l’abolition du discernement du suspect.”
  5. Emily Tamkin, “Violent anti-Semitic incident rose 13 percent worldwide last year, report says,” The Washington Post (1 May 2019): https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/05/01/violent-anti-semitic-incidents-rose-percent-worldwide-last-year-report-says/?utm_term=.454b7aeb90d6
  6. “Les actes antisémites en hausse de 74% en France en 2018 annonce Castaner,” Libération.fr (11 février 2019): https://www.liberation.fr/france/2019/02/11/les-actes-antisemites-en-hausse-de-74-en-france-en-2018-annonce-castaner_1708821
  7. Elian Peltier, “Sharp Rise in Anti-Semitic Acts in France Stokes Old Fears,” The New York Times (12 February 2019): https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/12/world/europe/paris-anti-semitic-attacks.html
  8. It should be noted that far-right domestic terrorism almost took place on French soil in 2017, but against French Muslims. Fortunately, French authorities thwarted the plans of the far-right organization, Action des forces opérationelles (AFO), mostly comprised of retired police officers and supporters of Marine Le Pen’s Front National, who aimed to commit mass murder against Muslims in France as retaliation for the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks across the country. Elise Vincent, “Ce que révèle l’enquête sur les projets d’attentats de l’ultradroite visant des musulmans,” Le Monde (4 septembre 2018): https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2018/09/04/quand-l-ultradroite-visait-des-musulmans_5349917_3224.html
  9. Quote from Johannes Due Enstad, “Antisemitic Violence in Europe, 2005-2015: Exposure and Perpetrators in France, UK, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Russia,” (June 2017): https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/55776. Also see Günther Jikeli, European Muslim Antisemitism: Why Young Urban Males Say They Don’t Like Jews (Indiana University Press, 2015).
  10. Ethan Katz, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France (Harvard University Press, 2015); Maud Mandel, Muslims and Jews in France: A History of Conflict (Princeton University Press, 2014).