A tale of anti-Semitic violence that horrified France unravelled yesterday when a 23-year-old woman who had claimed that a band of youths assaulted her on a train and scrawled swastikas on her body confessed that she had lied.
The woman, identified only as Marie-Leonie, had been suspected of inventing her supposed ordeal at the hands of six youths, of Arab and African origin, on the outskirts of northern Paris. She confessed after being taken in to custody for questioning last night.
The collapse of the “affair of the RER railway” embarrassed President Chirac as he prepared to give his annual Bastille Day pep talk to the nation today, with racism and hate crimes among the top subjects.
M Chirac will give his hour-long television interview from the Elysée Palace after reviewing a military parade led this year by guest contingents from Britain, the Grenadier Guards and the Household Cavalry.
The President no doubt regrets the way in which he seized on the reported attack last weekend as ministers and the media poured out a torrent of condemnation of mindless, anti-Semitic violence on suburban housing estates. M Chirac voiced horror at the reported actions of the youths who were said to have attacked the woman and her 13-month-old child as they travelled on the RER Express Métro in the Sarcelles area.
They were said to have cut off hair and sliced the clothes of the woman and daubed swastikas on her stomach with markers. The woman had told police that they had attacked her after wrongly identifying her as Jewish. They were also said to have thrown her child to the ground. Depite an investigation involving more than 100 officers, police had said earlier yesterday that they had been unable to confirm any details of the woman’s account. “We have found elements in the case which cast a very strong shadow over her statements,” Jean-Paul Proust, chief of the Paris police, had said.
She and the baby had suffered light injuries, but there was a mystery over their origin, police said.
Train personnel had also denied her claims that she had reported the incident to them and her mobile phone records also contradicted her story. One account suggested that she had boarded the train with her clothes already cut.
Newspapers had also reported that Marie-Leonie, the daughter of a Paris school janitor, had a record of making complaints to the police over the past five years about attacks that were never confirmed. Her friends and family said that she was known as a fantasist and had been under psychiatric care.
Jean-François Coppé, junior Interior Minister and government spokesman, said that the train affair, true or not, made no difference to France’s need to fight growing intolerance toward minorities.
According to official figures last week, hate crimes doubled in the first half of the year, with 510 anti-Jewish acts or threats reported to police. M Chirac warned France last week to stop turning a blind eye to rising anti-Semitism and racial intolerance.