New Film About Old Murder Mystery Rekindles French Debate On Racism and Justice

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Detail from the movie poster for Omar Killed Me

One of France’s most gripping real life whodunits is now the subject of a new feature film. But in addition to suspense and drama “Omar M’a Tuer”  (“Omar Killed Me”, see trailer here) creates, its recounting of a Moroccan gardener’s conviction for the 1991 murder of a rich French widow is also generating renewed debate about whether the accused was himself an innocent victim of a justice system overly keen to condemn convenient suspects—especially if they happen to be Arab.

The movie’s June 22 release came 20 years after the murder of millionaire Ghislaine Marchal in her villa near Cannes. The killing mesmerized France amid frenetic media coverage at the time, and still manages to generate rapt attention when it crops again. And for good reason.  Marchal, 65, was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death in her estate’s utility room, the door of which was barricaded from within to prevent entry. On the wall above her lifeless body, police found a message Marchal evidently wrote in her own blood: “Omar m’a tuer”. That, it seemed clear, was intended to identify Marchal’s Moroccan gardener, Omar Raddad, as her killer. Despite the inscription containing an error someone of Marchal’s education and background almost certainly wouldn’t have made (the infinitive of the verb “tuer” should have been rendered “tuée”), the dying victim’s accusation was interpreted as slam-dunk proof of Raddad’s guilt. After all, it was argued, with the door of the room blocked from inside, who else could have written the words but Marchal herself?That rhetorical question is one people who don’t believe Raddad was the murderer continue to ask as they theorize about out who really did kill Marchal—then tried to set her gardener up as the pasty. The reason for their doubt? Despite a long inquiry, officials failed to turn up anything beyond the message linking Raddad to the slaying, and were never able to fully substantiate it was Marchal who wrote the bloody accusation. Investigators pursued numerous theories and angles making the Moroccan for the murder, but most remained speculative and shaky–when they didn’t fall apart completely. In the end, prosecutors were given a case to take to court without any forensic evidence, no witnesses placing Raddad at or near the crime scene, nor even a solid motive for why he’d kill his employer. In spite of that, the court handed down a first-degree murder conviction of the illiterate, 28-year old laborer–whose difficulty with French had limited his ability to communicate with police and legal authorities—and slapped Raddad with an 18-year prison sentence.

Raddad’s supporters denounced what they called a sham trial built on a seriously flawed investigation by police they described as unwavering in their view an Arab accused of a crime had to be guilty. (That prejudice, detractors claim, was and remains a problem within France’s legal system and society, and was deepened further in Raddad’s case due to his status as a foreigner from a former French colony.) Raddad’s lawyers went so far to compare his conviction to France’s notorious Dreyfus affair, which grew from the nation’s anti-Semitic military leadership convicting a clearly innocent Jewish officer of treason. Indeed, discomfort and doubt surrounding Raddad’s case–and his own unceasing claims of innocence–eventually led then-President Jacques Chirac to grant the gardener a partial pardon in 1996.

So did Omar do it?  The film’s director Roschdy Zem (also an accomplished actor who starred in “Outside the Law”, “London River”, and “les Indigènes”[“Days of Glory”]) makes it clear he doesn’t believe it for a second. He revisits Raddad’s tale by following a counter-inquiry into the case undertaken by an author, and uses that independent examination to demonstrate the paucity of evidence the conviction was built on. In doing so, Zem depicts police and prosecutors succeeding in getting their man—but not the person who killed Marchal.

In depicting the case as a miscarriage of justice, the film has inspired some critics to expand debate beyond the limits of the Marchal murder case. As part of that, broader accusations have again been heard claiming France’s criminal justice system regularly steam-rolls possibly innocent suspects into quick convictions in order to close the book on cases. The movie has similarly generated renewed denunciations that, as dramatic and enigmatic as the Moroccan’s own case is, his plight is just one example of French society tending to assume the guilt of young Arabs accused of wrongdoing–unless there’s overwhelming proof to the contrary.

Not surprisingly, retorts to such charges are flowing from the other direction, and criticize the movie as crusading revisionism. Sabine du Granut, Marchal’s niece, has complained neither she nor her family were consulted about or informed of the movie’s release. They also say they’re shocked to see the man they believe was proven to be killer being depicted in the film as the real victim in the case—with almost no consideration for the slain Marchal. Police, investigators, judges, and justice officials have also objected to suggestions they’re bigoted bunglers who tend to hone in on the most convenient suspects to secure rapid convictions irrespective of their actual guilt. Some officials are also protesting what they say are efforts by Raddad’s supporters to cast the nation’s legal system and functionaries as the agents of racist French society. Others also refute suggestions that France itself suffers from wide-spread prejudice and that reserves harsh, neo-colonial treatment of Arabs in its midst.

“Politicizing this crime turned it into something exceptional that split France in two—it became the case of the Moroccan gardener versus colonial justice,” says Laurent Davenas, one of France’s highest legal officials, to the weekly le Point. Davenas believes Raddad’s defenders carefully selected the theme of racism and summary justice to divert attention from what he says is a solid case proving the Moroccan’s guilt–and in doing so turn the tables to put France and its justice system on trial.

“(They) went so far as to compare Raddad’s case to the Dreyfus affair. I’m sorry, but the Raddad case is no Dreyfus affair,” Davenas says. “To the contrary, for me they’ve manufactured an innocent man.”

So is there anything pro- and anti-Raddad camps agree on about the film? Maybe. Thus far, most observers concur that the performance of Sami Bouajila as Raddad has solidified his reputation as one of France’s best actors. Given the general disagreement the rest of the case generates, that one point of accord will have to do.