By the time it starts the Blistier trial has already been known for months as "the trial of Jean-Marie Le Pen." Civil rights groups were the first to call it that, but by now the phrase, borne along on waves of public indignation, is showing up in all the headlines. Shouldn't the leader of the National Front be held responsible for the murder committed by one of his brainwashed teenaged supporters? Shouldn't Le Pen appear before the court, at least as a witness?
Pierre Mine is right in the middle of this affair. He is a young lawyer with leftist views and a very personal personal life. He is defending the murderer, Ronald Blistier. Unable to say exactly why, he gives journalists the standard answer: everyone deserves a fair trial. He is declining interviews, either about the case or about himself.
Mine is the son of two Jewish lawyers. He has longish hair, is thirty years old and stylish. Ronald Blistier, his client, has a shaved head and a brutish, inept look. He is the standard-issue caricature of a right-wing militant. At the time of the crime he had just turned eighteen; today he is twenty. He inspires no sympathy whatsoever. Ma—tre Charles Loups, a polished veteran, has joined his colleague Xavier Rastaing in defending the interests of the victim's parents absolutely free of charge. Ma—tre Lionel Lamassol is the highly competent prosecutor.
"Hadi, your killer won't go free! Hadi, your killer's Jean-Marie!" Chanting, demonstrators file up and down in front of the courthouse, calling on society to pull itself together and send a strong message by convicting the defiantly racist defendant. Hadi Benfartouk's martyrdom makes him the symbol of all young people—of all human beings, in fact—who are stigmatized by the color of their skin. Some demonstrators launch into a mock-xenophobic slogan: "Free Brittany Now! Send Le Pen Home!" Everyone agrees the trial will have been worthwhile if it silences, even temporarily, those who mistake their base instincts for high principles.
In the courtroom Judge Rontmartin goes over the facts in the case and, when the audience reacts too noisily, threatens to suspend the proceedings. But the civil rights contingent, seasoned by past experience with the media, takes care not to "play into the hands of the National Front." The calm of the young Beur's1 supporters, and their apparent faith in their country's legal system, are the best way to assure a harsh verdict against Ronald Blistier and to fatally discredit his leader, symbol of right-wing extremism. The court is to be a forum as well as a tribunal. A few of the murderer's supporters are in the audience; they keep a low profile. The lawyers in the civil pleading say they will demand that Jean-Marie Le Pen be summoned.
This is the most notorious case Pierre Mine has ever been involved in. It makes him something of a sitting duck. The murderer is so nondescript that if Jean-Marie Le Pen isn't summoned, the defense attorney himself may become the target of Loups and Rastaing, the lawyers supporting Hadi Benfartouk's parents in their ordeal. The victim was fourteen when Ronald Blistier shot him like a rabbit, with a rifle, in the middle of Paris. It was nine at night. Blistier and a friend were putting up posters for the National Front. To amuse themselves they attacked a passing Arab; the kid ran away, and the murderer killed him, apparently for fun. The assailants botched their getaway; some passersby nabbed them and called the ambulance as well as the police, but Hadi had died instantly. There was a lot of emotion. Even today, when Judge Rontmartin states the facts, the audience gasps. At his arraignment, Blistier confessed everything and was locked up. To justify his deed, he said that he doesn't like Arabs, and that everybody would feel a lot better if they went back where they came from. Hadi Benfartouk was born in France, of French parents.
Outside the atmosphere is less constrained. There is on top of everything else a certain exuberance among the demonstrators—joy in being together, exercising their rights, performing an act of moral symbiosis. For them, getting Ronald Blistier convicted isn't enough. They want Le Pen officially implicated in the affair, want it clear that what he heads is a death squad, not a legitimate political party. Al Capone could probably have gotten some votes, too. It is sunny and nice out; sociability is in the air. Hadi Benfartouk's parents thoroughly support these demonstrations. Questioned about Ma—tre Mine's strategy, they express the hope he will not obstruct a top-to-bottom investigation of all aspects of the case. For Ma—tre Mine, it's as if he were being asked not to obstruct his client's top-to-bottom conviction, since he isn't aware of any deep dark secrets. Not even the National Front wants the law against murder changed to make the victim's race a mitigating factor.
"I don't like Arabs. They take our jobs. I had an unhappy childhood," says Ronald Blistier as soon as Judge Rontmartin addresses him—to Mine's consternation. Any lawyer would rather defend a hundred murderers than one idiot.
"The blacks are no better and I never killed any," adds Ronald Blistier, to show that notwithstanding his dislike of Arabs, there is no connection between his crime and his racism.
"Yes, I'm a racist," he says, "but I'll never go abroad. If foreigners didn't come here, they wouldn't run into any trouble."
Mine gets him to quiet down. This isn't easy, but it isn't impossible, because in fact Blistier trusts his lawyer. He wasn't picked by chance.
"If you keep up these insulting remarks you will make things even worse for yourself because the court will have to try you for advocating racism," says Judge Rontmartin, who immediately wishes she hadn't. She'd been expecting trouble from the audience and is caught off stride at first by the defendant's expostulations. An idiot defendant is not ideal for a judge, either.
Since cameras are not permitted in French trials, the little demonstration out in front of the courthouse provides the TV crews with their only material. One after another, they interview Joseph Calussin. He is twenty-one years old, the brother of a school friend of Hadi Benfartouk, and black. It is he who founded "Friends of Hadi" as soon as he heard about the murder. He tells how youths of all races got together, all of them shattered, and how staying united seemed the best way to channel this emotion and make it last. They are not connected to any political party, not even to S.O.S. Racisme, which supports their movement; they simply demand justice for the living and for the dead: the right of all youths to lead their lives as they see fit, respecting the laws whatever the color of their skin, and resisting anyone who tries to deny them that right. They speak of youths because they themselves are young, but obviously they don't find racism any more defensible when it affects older people.
"What do you think of Ma—tre Pierre Mine's strategy?" asks a journalist without specifying what he means by that.
"Everybody has the right to a lawyer," says Joseph Calussin. "We're not asking for any exceptions. But Ma—tre Mine has picked his side."
The defense attorney won't be marching with the anti-racists as he used to, but this goes unnoticed because nobody remembers him demonstrating anyway. It's only the trial that's making him notorious.
Ma—tre Charles Loups and Ma—tre Xavier Rastaing also speak to the cameras outside the courtroom. Each appears in turn, saying the same thing: justice must be done, because if it's not, France will stumble backward into the darkest excesses of its past.
The first day's session is very disjointed. Both defense and plaintiff ask for delays, which Judge Rontmartin gladly grants. The defendant keeps offending everyone, hurting his case, worsening his already horrible image. He doesn't seem to pay any attention to the advice that Mine can't possibly have failed to give him. He can't shut up, though that is what his attorney must certainly have recommended, adamantly.
Ronald Blistier: "I had my gun along in case I'd see any rats or niggers, it could have been them that was armed, your Honor."
Judge Rontmartin: "You mean Arabs and black people?"
Ronald Blistier: "The best defense is a good offense, like the Latins say, your Honor."
Ma—tre Mine: "Si vis pacem, para bellum."
Judge Rontmartin: "Thank you, Ma—tre Mine. But Hadi Benfartouk was not armed."
Ronald Blistier: "Luckily."
Judge Rontmartin: "Unluckily for him. And luckily for you, you haven't tried to claim self-defense, because it wouldn't have held up for one instant."
Ronald Blistier, waving his identity card: "I'm at home here, in my own country, I was born in Cachan, your Honor, I have the right to defend myself against whoever I want."
Ma—tre Charles Loups, rising: "If the session must continue in this vein with insults added to injury, then my clients, the father and mother of the victim, ask not to attend. I would myself prefer to follow them out of this room if staying means having to endure more of this racist madness."
Ronald Blistier: "Great. Good riddance."
Judge Rontmartin: "Be quiet. And Ma—tre Mine, try and make your client see an ounce of reason. Otherwise his trial will continue without him. Court adjourned."
There are countless such incidents. During one interruption a journalist asks Mine whether, since an insanity defense apparently won't work, he has thought of bringing in stupidity as a mitigating circumstance.
"Killing is the worst stupidity," Mine answers. "Worse than racist comments. I am not here to make light of murder."
"Your honor," observes Ma—tre Loups, "from what we are already seeing of the personality of the accused it is obvious how unformed, how malleable it appears. I ask that the court call Monsieur Jean-Marie Le Pen, president of the National Front, an organization of which the accused is a proud member and whose speeches, whose entire operation, I suspect of having inspired and then sanctioned the racist sentiments of the accused, thereby leading straight to the tragedy of November 19th."
The prosecutor, Limassol, adds his voice to this request. Mine offers no objection, and a summons to appear is issued.
The president of the National Front holds a press conference on the first day of the trial. Some journalists bring up the Blistier affair: what is his opinion of the crime, of the trial, and will he appear as a witness?
Jean-Marie Le Pen: "If Ronald Blistier should prove to have killed Hadi Benfartouk in cold blood, who would not deplore it? Who would not deplore the cold-blooded murder of a young North African on French soil?"
He pronounces these words without any emotion whatsoever.
And he goes on: "For my own part, I am in the habit of respecting the law. I know that in so doing I depart from the style of other politicians in this country. But that is how I define the democracy which I'm accused of endangering and which other people speechify about a great deal as long as it serves them, whereas they are ready to suspend it as soon as it threatens them. For it seems that the National Front is going to be banned, on the pretext, no doubt, that it has too many voters. In any case, I don't interfere in trials that haven't yet been decided and I will therefore say nothing about the trial of Ronald Blistier. I will however observe that when a thief is arrested, whether he is in the RPR, the UDF, or a Socialist or a Communist, nobody tries to drag in Monsieur Chirac, or Monsieur Léotard, Monsieur Hue, Monsieur Fabius or Monsieur Jospin. And yet these gentlemen have set quite an example. I've been accused of many things, but never yet of killing anyone with my own hands in a time of peace on our territory, even though I won't say I haven't wanted to when I've seen how certain people treat France. But who will claim that the leaders of our fine, our cherished, our so-called democratic political parties have never had their hands in the till and never packed their attaché cases with ill-gotten spoils?"
These statements make their way swiftly to the courthouse, where they provoke added excitement.
"It's a Pandora's box," says Joseph Calussin. "If you bring the National Front to trial you also have to give it the floor. Otherwise you'll be accused of censorship. And the more you give the floor to Le Pen, the more he is going to say horrendous things. Otherwise he wouldn't be Le Pen."
Everyone has the same impression: a sense of confronting a pit of filth. You exhaust yourself trying to claw your way out without in any way changing the pit. What's the solution? Ban the National Front? Some are for that, others against, arguing that you can't eliminate fascism or racism or filth—or whatever you want to call the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen—by passing laws.
Joseph Calussin: "Le Pen's strength comes from the fact that he's enjoying himself and that his listeners sense his enjoyment, whereas his detractors never find the right tone. We should counter his enjoyment with our own. And that's why I think joyous demonstrations are right for this trial. When I bring up the festive side of our marches, I don't think I'm being disrespectful to Madame and Monsieur Benfartouk in their grief. Nothing is going to bring Hadi back to them. But we're together. And even if we'd prefer Jean-Marie Le Pen didn't exist, we're glad to be living our lives against him and his henchmen, with Ronald Blistier at their head. If the National Front has accomplices in Germany and Austria, not allies in France, that's because its deep-rooted support doesn't come from France at all but from a nation of murderers whose boundaries aren't defined by geography."
Ma—tre Loups to the accused, as soon as the hearing resumes: "Monsieur Blistier, do you know Monsieur Le Pen personally?"
Ronald Blistier: "He never came up to me and said 'Blistier, go kill Hadi Benfartouk—of all the foreigners it's him I want to wipe out first.' Don't try blaming everything on him."
Various exclamations, uproar, and the session is suspended once more.
Suppose Ronald Blistier weren't all that stupid. What if, in his own way, he were executing the famous "trial of rupture" as conceived by Jacques Vergès? The accused and the court clearly do not share the same idea of justice.
Consultations between Ma—tre Mine and Ronald Blistier.
The lawyer: "Don't feel like you have to get everything off your chest right here in court."
The accused: "I've got nothing to hide. Do you think the Arabs, when the Animal Protection League gets after them—do you think they try to cover up that they slaughter sheep for A—d el Débir? You're crazy if you think I'll ever look less brave then them."
Ma—tre Mine: "Monsieur Blistier, we've been over this a hundred times already. If you think human beings are the same as animals, you're a fool. Let me do this my own way, otherwise there's no point in having a lawyer."
Ronald Blistier: "Don't leave me, Ma—tre Mine. Being alone scares me way more than justice. Justice is on my side if it's fair."
The session resumes. Finally some information is extracted from Ronald Blistier: he has been a member of the youth wing of the National Front since the age of fourteen. He was introduced once to Jean-Marie Le Pen, "the President," who addressed a few words of praise and encouragement to him regarding the soundness of his political development. Their intimacy doesn't seem to have gone futher than that.
Questioned about the evening of November 19, the accused says: "I have the right to campaign for whoever I want. I'm in jail because I put up posters for President Jean-Marie Le Pen, but if it'd been for Jacques Chirac or Lionel Jospin I'd probably be in the National Assembly now, or a minister."
Judge Rontmartin: "You are being prosecuted for the murder of Hadi Benfartouk."
Ronald Blistier: "But I didn't even know him, your Honor. I've already forgotten him. I can understand his parents being upset, but you? and the whole legal system? Give me a break. If it hadn't been President Jean-Marie Le Pen I was putting up posters for, this whole story would be exactly like all the others: nobody would care a thing about it."
Is this a tactical move? If so, the defense's strategy is becoming clearer: Ronald Blistier is rebelling against what he considers a political trial. He hasn't succeeded in swaying anyone, but he is disconcerting. His listeners aren't used to the explicit language of a racist.
Ma—tre Loups: "Your Honor, we didn't come here for a course on racism. Naturally, we are not opposed to freedom of expression, but hatred is not just an opinion like any other. I urge my colleague, Ma—tre Mine, to moderate his client's language. It will give him a good opportunity to intervene now and then in the proceedings."
Ma—tre Mine: "Your Honor, I hope Ma—tre Loups will not take it as a personal affront if I remind him that in France, which is a democracy, the defense does not have to obey the prosecution. Let me add that it is not incumbent on me to disassociate myself from Ronald Blistier's remarks. Ma—tre Loups has not quite understood how the legal system works if he thinks that I am here as the accomplice of my client."
And so on: one altercation after another, both inside and outside the courtroom, like sets in a tennis match. As was to be expected, when the session is adjourned, the first day has produced nothing definite.
A little later, on LCI, a special correspondent speaks live from the street in front of the courthouse. About thirty Blistier supporters, looking tough, have congregated fifty meters from the Friends of Hadi. Between them are some riot police in combat gear. For the time being, racists and anti-racists are content to trade insults. It's not in the interests of Joseph Calussin that things should get out of hand; his demonstrators outnumber Blistier's ten to one. "The hope is that none of this will interfere with the rule of law," says the reporter. The lawyers in the civil pleading express the same general hope, that the accused will not obtain by force what he cannot obtain by right.
Back at home, Ma—tre Mine hears for the first time another clip from Jean-Marie Le Pen's press conference:
"And when have we ever seen these hordes who are supposed to be so avid for justice try to make an example of a North African who's murdered a Frenchman? Because after all, let's not forget that's what happens nine times out of ten. Does this mean that all these Calussins or Calissons who stole the name of a perfectly respectable Provençal pastry—whose whiteness of course they do not share—consider it more acceptable that the French of France should be systematically shot down on the soil of their own country by those to whom they gave sanctuary on an ill-starred day long ago?"
LCI devotes a special program to the affair: for TV, for the press and for millions of people it is the biggest thing happening.
Another quote from Le Pen:
"I know that Ma—tre Mine is not on my side. But he still deserves all my respect for having agreed to defend Ronald Blistier despite the relentless campaign of hatred that's been mounted against him ever since November 19, 1995. There's a democrat for you."
"Fair enough," says the recipient of the compliment.
"But why the hell are you even involved in it?" inquires Mahmoud Mammoudi, Mine's young boyfriend.
Commentary by Ma—tre Rastaing on LCI:
"Democracy does not need dandified lawyers who jeopardize it to advance their own careers. But then, I doubt the Republic will have much difficulty calling these troublemakers to order and reminding them of the law which will be harsh, but will be law."
Ma—tre Loups is a friend of Mine's parents, which explains why these observations are offered by his colleague, not by him.
LCI is back on the street in front of the court. Live interview with a Friend of Hadi:
"Le Pen is a fascist and a murderer. If the National Front had been banned, Hadi would still be alive. I hope that the government will at least give it a deadline now to disband, and that Le Pen will finally be expelled from his millionaire's house in Saint-Cloud and thrown into prison where he belongs."
Live interview with a Blistier supporter:
"I'm surprised this doesn't happen more often. The way the whites are always getting stopped from doing what they want in their own country, it'll end up in an explosion pretty soon, a general revolt. And the sooner the better, while there are still more of us than them."
This firebrand is led away by some friends who consider it imprudent to talk like that to the metropolitan press.
"I've got no name, and all the unknowns think like I do," shouts the guy again from a distance, loud enough so it will still get recorded. "If we'd let loose like this every time a foreigner kills a Frenchman, there wouldn't be enough days in the year for all the demonstrations. They never quit murdering. Even during Ramadan. Even Muslims. In Algeria."
Joseph Calussin at the mike: "There is a violent mood among the supporters of Ronald Blistier, an atmosphere of racist explosion. Freedom of expression doesn't mean you can call for murder or for hatred. It has its limits and they have obviously been violated here. Demonstrators for the right to murder should be arrested and tried. I don't think it's respect for civil liberties that keeps the government from doing this. I think it's cowardice."
Ma—tre Mine in front of his TV:
"I hope I don't turn out to be gutless too."
"It's not guts you lack, it's the crap, it's the slime it takes to go head-to-head with these people. But, too bad. It's too late now."
On LCI, back in the studio, a debate which Mine refused to participate in. They turn off the TV.
"You're pretty quiet, Pierrot."
"I'm just thinking. What if this trial could really be turned into a trial of the National Front?"
"You mean, set a trap for Le Pen? It's us who'll fall into it."
"Why do you say that?"
"Pierrot," explains Mahmoud as if to a child, "the National Front is a permanent trap. Picture the guys you pass in the subway, HIV-positive, just out of jail, behind on their child support and just wanting to stay clean, on the lookout for a little change, for a smile or a meal ticket and always disappointed in this modest quest. Are you going to take a big interest in them just before they enter the voting booth—show how concerned you are about them for fear they'll vote for the wrong side? Assuming they even get to vote, those guys with no fixed address, no property and not even their health. And what about the other side, Algerians and Vietnamese and all the foreigners who enter France illegally, at the mercy of everybody and everything, treated like slaves—they can't afford to be afraid of anybody short of a total monster. You weren't made to push around people who have nothing to lose. And the National Front is the party of people with nothing to lose and Jean-Marie Le Pen is their chief. When people are sinking, do you have the raw will to push their heads under? Or when the most repulsive ideas come into their mind, how do you feel about suggesting something even worse? Are you shameless enough? Because Le Pen is. He feels fine about it, too, and he's been at it for years."
"I'm not following you. What's your point? That I don't have the guts, I guess."
"You do, Pierrot, but not enough. Or I mean, I don't know what the word for it is, but you can't be counted on to gang up ten to one on a widow and an orphan. The others don't hesitate, so the fight is uneven, that's all."
"What do you mean? It's not as if I can't take responsibility."
Ma—tre Mine and Mahmoud Mammoudi have been together for only three months; they have hardly talked at all yet about the Blistier affair and its implications. Now the tension of the trial makes it impossible for Mine to avoid the subject.
"What are you hoping for?"
"Just to get through it," admits Mine. "I hope it's not going to blow up," he adds, turning the TV back on.
Another Le Pen quote:
"I now learn there is talk of bringing me to trial. There is nothing so surprising in that, coming from traitors to France. Didn't they put Joan of Arc on trial? But as far as I'm concerned, I don't think the wood for my stake has sprouted yet. I too have friends, some millions of them. And since whenever I'm wronged, they're wronged, they might get the idea of defending me with force if it appeared to them that I'm being subjected to injustice that finally exceeds all bounds."
Mine: "You can see the joy on his face every time he manages to say just exactly what he means. It gives him a grammatical high to nail it every time. It's like a sadistic perversion: you provoke a maximum of evil with a minimum of words. If he weren't such a good speaker—if he had a stutter or something—he'd have to come up with a completely different political strategy."
Mahmoud Mammoudi: "I can't really see anything on his face but infamy. He strikes me as horrifying and repulsive more than hateful. But time out, okay? We've got better things to do than talk about him."
Before going to bed they watch the news again: the Blistier supporters have provoked only a few incidents on the Place Saint-Michel; things haven't got out of hand.
1A colloquial expression—backward slang for "Arabe"—designating a person whose parents or grandparents are North African immigrants.
From Le Procès de Jean-Marie Le Pen (Paris: P.O.L., 1998). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2008 by Ann Smock. All rights reserved.