PARIS — When Jérémy Cohen, 31, a Jewish man living in a northern Paris suburb, died in February after being hit by a tram, his death was initially reported as an accident and received little attention.
But the episode sparked outrage this week after a video surfaced on social media showing that Mr Cohen, who was identified by prosecutors, was on the run from a beating by a group of young men as he crossed the tram rails – the suspicion aroused that an anti-Semitic attack had hastened his death and turned it into a political flashpoint just days before the French presidential election.
Candidates entering the final stretch of the presidential campaign are now rushing to seek clarity about the exact circumstances of Mr Cohen’s death, injecting new volatility into an already close-knit race.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation into assault and involuntary manslaughter and, while not ruling it out, have said there is no evidence of an anti-Semitic motive so far. But no arrests have been made and authorities have not yet determined why Mr Cohen was attacked.
Far-right politicians have been most outspoken on the case – especially Éric Zemmour, the anti-immigrant expert whose campaign has been toned down in recent weeks and who has brushed off the unknowns of the case to paint France as a crime-ridden country. He has vowed that his first symbolic gesture as president would be to visit Mr. Cohen’s family.
But the case also reflects the long-standing frustration in the French Jewish community that anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews are often minimized or mishandled by the French media and authorities.
“I expect the legal system to shed all light on his death and investigate all indications, including broadening judicial procedures to include anti-Semitism,” Francis Kalifat, the president of France’s Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, said on Twitter†
Gérald Cohen, Mr Cohen’s father, told BFMTV on Monday that he had contacted Mr Zemmour in hopes of disclosing the death and speeding up the investigation. Mr. Zemmour is Jewish, although his rise – driven by efforts to rehabilitate the French Vichy regime, which co-operated with the Nazis during World War II – has divided the French Jewish community.
President Emmanuel Macron told reporters during a campaign break in Brittany, in western France, on Tuesday that he wanted “complete clarity” about Mr Cohen’s death but warned of “political manipulations”.
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The run-up to the first round of the elections was dominated by issues of security, immigration and national identity.
Macron is still widely expected to make it to Sunday’s first round of voting, but latest polls show his lead in a possible runoff against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen is dwindling.
As a sign of how seriously he took the investigation into Cohen’s death, Macron’s office said he had asked the justice minister to closely monitor the case and keep him “personally informed”.
In 2017, weeks before Macron’s election, a 65-year-old Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, was thrown out of her window by a man who had smoked cannabis. But it wasn’t until 2021 before France’s highest court ruled that the man could not face her death because it found he was in a state of acute mental delirium caused by his drug use, sparking widespread outrage. Macron himself had called for a trial in the case, which is symbolic of the Jewish community’s frustration with the French justice system.
Mr Zemmour, who describes France as besieged by Islam and immigration, was the first to draw national attention to Mr Cohen’s case in several Twitter posts on Monday. He continued with a scathing opinion article in Valeurs Actuelles, a conservative publication, in which he called Mr Cohen’s death a “horrific symptom of the tragedy our country is going through.”
Other candidates across the spectrum responded quickly in the wake of Mr. Zemmour.
Mrs. Le Pen wrote on Twitter that “what was presented as an accident could be an anti-Semitic murder”, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate in the presidential election, expressed support to Mr. Cohen’s family and asked for “truth and justice.”
In the days and weeks after the incident, two of Mr Cohen’s brothers appealed to people living near the attack site for information by putting leaflets in letterboxes. Someone reached out with a video of the incident, which was also shared with police. It’s unclear who initially posted the video on social media, but it rose to prominence after Mr Zemmour shared it.
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Those images of the February 16 attack were filmed remotely, apparently by a bystander in a nearby building. It shows about a dozen young men surrounding Mr. Cohen in front of the entrance to a building on a busy street in Bobigny, a northern suburb of Paris, around 8 p.m. Several of them appear to be pushing, pushing or hitting Mr. Cohen, who falls. to the ground.
Another figure joins the group and begins to violently beat him. mr. Cohen flees and crosses the street onto the track and is hit by the tram, which is stuck in the undercarriage. mr. Cohen died in hospital several hours later.
Éric Mathais, the prosecutor in Bobigny, said at a news conference on Tuesday that investigators were questioning witnesses but had not yet determined what prompted the attack or whether Cohen was targeted because he was Jewish. But he said any new evidence of an anti-Semitic motive would be considered.
Cohen had a white skullcap that police later returned to his family after finding it near the scene of the incident, but it was unclear whether he was wearing it at the time of the incident, prosecutors and Mr Cohen’s family said. the attack.
Mr. Cohen’s father said his son was a “nice” man who studied math and computer science after high school and “got his life back on track” after depression.
“They beat, beat, and beat him, but he never defended himself,” Mr. Cohen said of his son, adding that, for him, “the tram was the result of everything that had happened before.”