The death of a young Jewish man in Bobigny, north of Paris, has shocked France and sparked outrage among French presidential candidates, who seized on it to denounce criminality and a possible antisemitic attack.
Jérémy Cohen, 31, was killed when he was hit by a tram in Bobigny in February, which was initially reported in local media as a traffic accident. But when his family leafleted the area to see if local people had more information on what had happened, a witness came forward with video footage, which circulated online this week.
Cohen, who had a disability, was surrounded by a group of men and attacked. As he escaped, he was hit by the tram and died shortly afterwards in hospital.
After Cohen’s family spoke to Radio Shalom about the case, presidential candidates used the death to suggest the French authorities were not doing enough on the case or on crime in general, days before the first round of the presidential election.
The former TV pundit and far-right, anti-immigration candidate, Éric Zemmour, was the first politician to raise the case on social media, asking if Cohen had died because of the violence of a group of thugs. “Did he die because he is Jewish?” Zemmour asked. “Why has this affair been covered up?”
Zemmour wrote a magazine article arguing that the case showed the “poisoned cocktail of contemporary France”, from what he called a lax justice system and young thugs with no care for human life. He said French authorities permanently lied to cover up crime by immigrants. Zemmour said in a TV interview that he was shocked by the crime and wanted to restore “peace” to France.
Bobigny’s prosecutor Eric Mathais said the death should not be used for ‘political manipulation’. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images
On a visit to Brittany on Tuesday as part of his re-election campaign, the president, Emmanuel Macron, said: “I want to express my solidarity with Jérémy Cohen’s family”. He said the video had “shaken” everyone, and the justice system must bring “complete clarity on the situation” and must find answers “as swiftly as possible”. Macron’s office had contacted the Cohen family to express “compassion” and concern.
The far-right’s Marine Le Pen – who polls show is likely to go through to a second-round runoff against Macron on 10 April – told French radio there must be a parliamentary inquiry over whether authorities deliberately covered up the case.
Cohen’s brother told Radio Shalom, that his kippah, or traditional Jewish cap, had been found on the ground at the scene, emphasising that he did not know if he was wearing it at the time of the attack.
The family’s lawyer, Franck Serfati, told RMC radio on Tuesday that at this stage there was no “tangible proof” of an antisemitic attack and the investigation was continuing. Serfati said: “The question to be answered is: was Jérémy wearing the kippah? Was it hidden? Did his attackers target him because he was Jewish?” He said it was up to the justice system to determine this.
Serfati said that, as a lawyer, he did not want the case to be a focal point for politicians. “I am only looking for the truth from the justice system, to identify and arrest the attackers and for them to face justice.”
Eric Mathais, the state prosecutor in Bobigny, confirmed that an investigation had been opened into the violent attack. “The hypothesis that the victim had crossed the tram tracks to escape his attacks was naturally taken into account,” he said.
In a press conference on Tuesday, the Bobigny prosecutor said there was no certainty at this stage of the investigation that there were “discriminatory” motives behind the attack or that the victim was wearing a kippah at the time. He said more witnesses would be interviewed.