On Monday, November 18, a gunman shot a 23-year-old photographers assistant at point-blank range in the entrance to the Paris headquarters of the left-wing French newspaper Libération. Later that day, the same man is believed to have fired shots at the bank Société Générale, shattering some glass, before committing a carjacking. These were horrible and disturbing crimes, yet before the police could track down a suspect or offer a preliminary analysis, the New York Times was prepared to frame the entire affair in predictable ways.
The day after the shootings, the Times enlisted Annette Lévy-Willard, a staff writer at Libération—a paper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1973—to provide a context for the events. Lévy-Willard couldnt resist making the anti-American point, which has been echoed elsewhere in the French press: things are now getting as bad in France as they are in the United States. I remember nights in L.A., when we would watch helicopters chasing fugitives, Levy-Willard wrote. Now helicopters were flying over the Champs-Elysées. Lévy-Willard intimated that a climate of homophobia and racism in France helped produce the shooter. She reported that a strange, febrile atmosphere had developed, in which it seems respectable to hold and express racist or anti-Semitic views. She implied that the shooter targeted Libération because it supported gay marriage—the subject of a vigorous national debate in France prior to its legalization in May.
The back story here is that one of the key leaders of the gay marriage push in France was Christine Taubira, the current Justice Minister, who is black. A candidate of the Front National—a far right-wing political party—called Taubira a monkey and demonstrators taunted her with a banana. Her treatment became a national scandal. Yet, contrary to Lévy-Willards framing of the issue in the Times, the suspect now in custody is Abdelhakim Dekhar, a 48-year-old man of Algerian descent. His motives remain a mystery, but racism and homophobia dont seem to be high on the list. Furthermore, the initial press description of him as white or a European type played down the possibility that the shootings were acts of terrorism committed by someone from North Africa. Some militant Muslim groups have apparently been irked that the shootings werent spun that way. Other framings in the French press have included the classic crazy shooter or the lone wolf. Still other commentators have suggested that it was an attack on the system or elite institutions in France, which at least had the merit of bringing Société Générale back into the story. But one really needs to wait until the facts are in to make sense of things.
This isnt the first time that Dekhar, who served in the Algerian army, has been implicated in violent activities. He was convicted in a French court for involvement in the 1994 Rey-Maupin affair, an attempt by a young anarchist couple to steal weapons from French security forces. The botched robbery ended in a shootout that killed three policemen, a taxi driver, and one of the robbers, Aubry Maupin. In his 1998 trial for providing weapons and mentoring the two French anarchists, Dekhar claimed that he had been charged by the Algerian secret services to infiltrate the French far Left. He was sentenced to four years in prison but quickly released for time served.
Even as other news outlets in the United States have continued to follow the French story, the Times has published only one short news item since the Lévy-Willard op-ed. The paper of record seems more interested in suggesting that the shooting was the result of a culture poisoned by racism and homophobia than in continuing to inform readers of the facts. This approach—pinning blame on a broader climate rather than on specific perpetrators for acts of violence—will be familiar to regular Times readers, and it has a long pedigree. Consider the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 50th anniversary of which we have just observed. In JFKs case, it wasnt Lee Harvey Oswald the Communist who killed the president, but rather, as columnist James Reston put it the night of the presidents death, a streak of violence in the American character, especially the violence of the extremists on the right. The Times later editorialized that it was a spirit of madness and hate that struck down Kennedy.
It now seems that in France, as in the United States, the Left can use almost any terrible incident as a teachable moment to urge national repentance for the nations many sins—past and present.