THIS is a tale of the murders of two Frenchmen, each gruesomely knifed to death in public by Muslim assailants of immigrant origin, and of the astounding difference in the treatment of these crimes by politicians and the media.
The first victim was Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher almost decapitated in the street of his home town near Paris last autumn for showing his class the infamous Danish cartoons that offended Islamists by depicting their prophet. Paty’s death triggered an explosion of outrage across the country.
President Emmanuel Macron called Paty a ‘quiet hero’, awarded him a posthumous Legion d’Honneur – France’s highest decoration – and said ‘he died because he incarnated the republic’ as a public servant.
The second victim, killed on May 10 this year in Marseilles, was military hospital radiologist Dr Alban Gervaise. His throat was cut with a Swiss Army knife in front of his children aged three and seven outside their Catholic school by a man identified only as Mohammed L. The assailant was described as a French citizen who said he acted ‘in the name of God’.
Despite the circumstances, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported that the police found no terrorist motive and that ‘the man apparently has mental problems’.
Gervaise was an army doctor. But Macron had no more to say about his incarnating the republic than almost the entirety of the mainstream media, which generally ignored the killing even though it was as horrific as Paty’s. Outlets which reported it treated it as a fait divers – a brief news item.
Why the apparent double standard?
It may be pertinent that Gervaise was killed as campaigning began for the first round of the French general election in which Macron and Jean-Luc Mélanchon, the leader of the united Left, were vying for the Muslim vote.
It is as if neither politicians nor journalists wanted to rile Muslims or risk a repetition of the backlash against the terrorist Paty murder, which focused voters’ attention on Islamist extremism in their midst.
The question being asked is why Gervase was chosen as the victim. Was it at random, or because he was white, or for being a Catholic, or for serving in the military?
Efforts to find the answer are being sought with little success so far by a conservative, Senator Valerie Boyer – a campaigner against knife crime – who has pursued the ministers of the interior and of justice for explanations and has been ignored.
She wrote on Twitter: ‘The media silence about the death of this father of a family, devoted to France, makes his death all the more cruel. Alban Gervaise was a Catholic, a soldier whose throat was cut outside a Catholic school. For most of the media he was not the “right kind” of victim. Talking about it would have played to the extremes.’
Which raises the question: Who would have been the right kind of victim? Gervaise’s murder stands out because of its parallels with the Paty case. But other instances of Muslim violence have also been downplayed during the election season.
In Lyons, a Jew in his 80s was thrown to his death from a window in May by a neighbour named as Rachid K. Investigators have not decided whether the motive was anti-Semitism. In Mulhouse this month, a woman in her 70s was raped and murdered in her flat. Three illegal Algerian immigrants, two of them falsely posing as minors, have been arrested.
The reports have not said whether Gervaise was in uniform at the school, but his killing has disturbed the army. An unnamed senior officer told Le Figaro newspaper it was worrying that the media had more or less ignored a killing which under normal circumstances would have produced headlines similar to those after Paty’s murder.
‘Is it because he was a soldier, or for ideological reasons?’ he asked. ‘A number of us are asking the question. And we want a response because the media silence is like a second death.’
Another military source asked: ‘What is a soldier’s life worth in this country? I don’t know why the murder of Alban Gervaise, a victim of terrorism, has been so shrouded in silence. It is shameful.’
Valerie Boyer said the attribution of mental problems to Gervaise’s killer was possibly a cover-up concocted to avoid discussion of a possible religious motive.
‘When mental problems are cited, it’s always dramatic but it becomes a fait divers,’ she added. ‘The act is not regarded as rational. We should wonder why it is that these “madmen” have the same profile and way of operating – the knife – and choose their victims according to the same predetermined criteria.’
She at least implies that citing mental illness is useful way for police and prosecutors to prevent people drawing embarrassing conclusions. Mental health and social issues ranging from crime to homelessness and drug addiction are increasingly interwoven to the extent that the categorisation becomes meaningless except as a catch-all explanation to excuse offenders.
Yet a mental health problem can be anything from mild depression, which everyone suffers at some point in their life, to the psychoses that make disturbed teenagers shoot up schools. It is not something that should be abused for political or legal convenience.