The Jeweller and his Gun, New, Sept 15, 2013

nice-jeweller-580.jpegWhile the United States grapples with its most recent gun massacre, France is up in arms about a crime that would probably not even travel beyond a local newspaper in an American city. In Nice, a jeweller who was the victim of a robbery shot one of the two stickup men as he rode away on a motor scooter. The jeweller, whose gun was unlicensed, has been charged with voluntary homicide. The thieves, after all, were fleeing and no longer represented a threat to him, and so, according to French law, he is subject to a homicide charge. He was shot “like a pigeon,” the father of the deceased thief said, pointing out that his son was shot in the back. “What would he have lost if he had let them drive off?”Many in France see the case differently: the victim, Anthony Asli, although only nineteen, had a record of fourteen previous crimes, most for juvenile offenses. He had recently been released from prison and was on parole. The Nice Jeweller, Stephan Turk, has suddenly become a national hero to many, reflecting a particular mood in the country.

Turk, who was allegedly hit and kicked by his assailants before being robbed at gunpoint, insists that he was only trying to stop the thieves, not kill them. “I was trying to stop the scooter. … I am sorry he’s dead. … But I ask, Where was his family? Where was his father? Children must be properly looked after.”

Although crime, especially violent crime, is much less common in France than in the U.S., the rates are rising in some categories—in particular, armed robbery—jumping from a hundred and fifty thousand incidents a year to two hundred thousand, increasing a perception of insecurity in the country. There has been a rash of such robberies at jewelry stories, which has contributed to the public’s defense of the Nice Jeweller. A Facebook page dedicated to supporting him has received 1.6 million “likes,” setting off a debate about what this means. Some suspected that many of the “likes” were from “phantom friends,” robots in Asia hired to create the illusion of a mass movement. But closer inspection has revealed that most of Stephan Turk’s supporters are real: the vast majority are French Facebook users with names and photographs, and not suspicious contacts from some computer in Asia.

“Under the growing weight of the Internet and its social networks, the ‘Nice Jeweller’ affair has, in just a few days, revealed the depth of the uneasy state of French society,” the left-of-center daily newspaper Le Monde wrote on Wednesday in a front-page editorial.

The right-wing National Front has made the Nice Jeweller a symbol of their movement. The movement’s eighty-five-year-old founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, posed for the newspapers as if he were holding a pistol, and told the press that he would have done the same thing. Marine Le Pen, his daughter, and the movement’s new leader, has received wild applause when she’s taken up Turk’s cause at public rallies: “When people feel obliged to defend themselves with such dramatic consequences, it is a sign that they no longer have any confidence in the state or the forces of order,” she said on Saturday.

The case—and the larger issue of crime—may help push France toward the right. In a highly unusual move, the mayor of Nice, a member of the center-right U.M.P., the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, attended the demonstration in support of the Nice Jeweller together with a representative of the National Front. Until now, the two main French parties, the Socialist Party of current President, François Hollande, and the center-right U.M.P., have been united in what is known here as the Republican Front, making common cause in opposing Le Pen’s National Front at all cost. François Fillon, who was Prime Minister while Sarkozy was President, made a provocative statement, quickly retracted, that he might well abandon the idea of a common front to stop the National Front.

Under the much smoother and more sophisticated leadership of the younger Le Pen, the National Front appears to be broadening its appeal and shaking the image of crude racism and more extreme anti-immigrant positions attributed to the elder Le Pen.

Nonetheless, the case has something of a racial tinge, although a complex one. Stephan Turk speaks French with a heavy accent, while his victim appears to be white. (The ambiguity in all this stems from the fact that the French are not allowed to count and register people by ethnic and racial origin, and the French press follows suit by avoiding such categories—despite the obvious presence of considerable racial tension in French society.)

But much of the public anger is directed at the Hollande government’s black Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, who is from French Guyana. One of the phrases chanted at a demonstration for the Nice Jeweller is highly charged: “Non à la racaille, oui à la mitraille”—“No to the scum, yes to the machine gun!” The term racaille was used by Sarkozy to characterize rioters in the French slums who burned cars in protest over the deaths of immigrant teen-agers in 2005.

The case of the Nice Jeweller can be seen in the reflected light of the latest crime news in the U.S.—the Trayvon Martin case, the mass murder committed by Aaron Alexis at the Washington Navy Yard, and the killing the other day of an unarmed black twenty-four-year-old man, a former college football player who had been in a car accident, by a North Carolina police officer. But, in another sense, the French mood feels a bit like that of New York in the mid-nineteen-eighties. One thinks of the case of Bernhard Goetz, who was acquitted for firing on a group of unarmed teen-agers whom he felt were about to mug him, and became both a hero and villain for taking justice into his own hands. That period of rising crime and heightened racial tension led to a series of tougher crime laws, from mandatory-sentencing and three-strikes statutes to Stand Your Ground, along with the gutting of gun-control legislation—the fallout from which we are dealing with in the United States.

“I don’t want to be used as a political football,” Stephan Turk told the media. But, like it or not, the case of the Nice Jeweller has helped reveal the fault lines of what may be a profound shift in French politics. Will France do a better job of finding a happier compromise between defending a legitimate desire for security and the Wild West gunslinger attitude prevalent in the U.S.?

Photograph by Jean-Christophe Magnenet/AFP/Getty


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