SORGUES, FRANCE – A T-shirt worn by a 3-year-old child named Jihad has led to an unusual and politically charged criminal trial in France that tests the limits of free speech — and common sense — in a nation increasingly ill at ease with its growing Muslim population.
“I am a bomb,” the T-shirt said on the front. The back read, “Jihad born Sept. 11.”
The prosecution and the defense have both said the outcome is likely to set a legal precedent as the government and justice system handle recurring friction between France’s 8 percent Muslim minority and the majority of the country’s 65 million other inhabitants, who recognize their roots in ancient Christian tradition.
The tensions have been increasingly visible as French soldiers combat Islamist guerrillas in Mali and antiterrorism police scour France’s poor suburbs in search of Muslim youths drawn by the call to jihad or revenge.
An Islamist cell broken up in Marignane, on the country’s Mediterranean coast, earlier this month, for instance, was preparing to construct bombs for terrorist attacks in French cities, authorities declared.
In another sign of the strain, France’s highest court, the Cour de Cassation, on Tuesday overturned a lower court decision that endorsed the firing of a nursery school teacher who refused to remove the Islamic veil covering her hair.
The landmark decision overturned a ruling by an appeals court in Versailles that had upheld the right of her employer, a private nursery school in the Paris suburbs, to dismiss her after she refused to remove her head scarf.
Any overt religious symbols — head scarves, Jewish skullcaps or Sikh turbans, for example — are banned from French state schools, which operate on strictly secular lines.
But the court ruled that this principle could not be applied to the woman’s case because she was employed by a private school, and so her civil right to express her religious faith prevailed.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls later told Parliament that the court’s ruling was regrettable because it “calls into question the principle of secular education.”
The case in Sorgues, a small town just north of Avignon where Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque pursued their cubist art, began Sept. 25 at an unlikely place: the Ramieres de Sorgues municipal nursery. While dressing the children after a lunch break, a teacher became alarmed when she saw the T-shirt warn by Jihad.
Although little Jihad was, in fact, born on Sept. 11, the teacher saw an outrageous reference to Islamic war and the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Concerned, she spoke with the principal, who became equally upset and called in Jihad’s 35-year-old Moroccan-born mother, Bouchra Bagour.
Told of the indignation produced by her son’s T-shirt, the single mother, who works as a secretary, apologized for causing trouble and said she had no intention of conveying a political message via her toddler. The shirt, she pledged, would be put away for good.
But the issue did not rest there. The principal wrote a report to school district authorities. A copy of the report landed on the desk of Sorgues Mayor Thierry Lagneau.
The mayor, from the conservative Union for a Popular Movement party, said in an interview that he regarded the T-shirt as a “provocation,” and immediately stepped into action. “I said to myself, we can’t let that go by,” Lagneau recalled. “I didn’t know what was behind it, but we could not let that go. We have to impose limits.”
Lagneau wrote a letter on Sept. 29 last year to the region’s chief prosecutor, Bernard Marchal, asking for an investigation for possible criminal prosecution as well as a “thorough” probe by child welfare authorities to determine whether Bagour was a fit mother.
If her son showed up again in the T-shirt, the mayor warned, the principal had orders to turn him away, “given the attitude of his parents, who cannot decently ignore the dramatic impact of their acts.”
Before long, Bagour and her brother, Zeyad Bagour, 29, were called in separately by national police and questioned about their religious and political leanings.
The mother was interrogated for about an hour and released.
Her brother, who had bought the T-shirt in nearby Avignon and given it to Jihad, said he was kept in custody for four hours, including more than two hours in a holding cell.
“The questions were scandalous,” said Soliman Makouh, the brother’s lawyer.
Zeyad Bagour, who was born in France and works nights in a fast-food restaurant, said he was asked whether he practiced his Islamic faith ardently, whether he was interested in Islamist terrorism and whether he had traveled to Afghanistan or similar countries for contacts with jihadist organizations.
His only recent foreign trip abroad was to Ibiza, Spain, for a beach vacation, he replied.
The most troubling question from the police, Makouh said, was put to both the mother and the brother: Did Bagour induce labor three years ago, so that Jihad would be born on Sept. 11? The answer from both was no.
After the police investigation, no terrorism-related charges were brought. But the prosecutor decided to charge Bagour and her brother with “apology for crime,” which under a 1981 French law carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $58,000 fine.
“Our society cannot tolerate extremist or equivalent attitudes,” Lagneau told reporters after the charges were lodged. “I am convinced that all those who have authority must act, denounce, show the greatest firmness. This, I believe, is our duty. Otherwise we would risk trivializing facts that are serious and recognized as such by the prosecutor.”
Zeyad Bagour, a bachelor who lives with his sister and two other siblings, said he had trouble understanding what all the fuss was about.
He bought the T-shirt without thinking of any political message, he said.
The front already had the words “I am a bomb” printed on it, but he had understood that as an expression roughly equivalent to “I am a real looker.”
As for the back, he said, he just wanted to put down his nephew’s name and date of birth.
“I did it on a lark,” he recalled, apologizing for any alarm he raised. “It wasn’t even meant as a joke.”
For Lagneau, however, the T-shirt was more than a joke, even an ill-considered one — it was a deliberate call to Islamic jihad.
He hired a lawyer and joined the criminal prosecution, making the city what in French law is known as a “civil party,” claiming to have suffered from an alleged crime.
“They knew very well what they were doing,” the mayor said. “There is no ambiguity possible.”
At a four-hour trial on March 6, Deputy Prosecutor Olivier Couvignou also portrayed the T-shirt as a deliberate political message.
“There is nothing innocent in these words,” he said, according to news accounts of the proceedings.
Couvignou asked the judges to impose a fine of $4,000 on the brother and $1,300 on the mother.
Claude Avril, Lagneau’s lawyer, asked for roughly the same amount but has since dropped the request to a symbolic €1 ($1.30), according to the mayor.
In any case, the main punishment, in the event of a conviction, would be a criminal record that would make getting a job difficult and probably land both Bouchra and Zeyad Bagour on watch lists in airports around the world, Soliman, the brother’s lawyer, pointed out.
Soliman and Bouchra’s lawyer, Gaele Guenoun, argued that neither defendant was a militant and neither had intended to broadcast a political message.
The T-shirt was a private affair, they argued, meaning it did not correspond to the legal definition of “apology for crime.”
After hearing the arguments, the court took the case under advisement and promised to hand down its verdict April 10.
Makouh accused Lagneau of acting out of political interest, currying favor among anti-immigrant voters for municipal elections scheduled next year. Although a conservative, Lagneau faces a challenge from the far-right National Front. The extremist party has strong backing among the 18,500 residents of Sorgues, and its rising star, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, is considering a run for mayor.
“This area is like Mississippi in the United States during the civil rights struggle,” Soliman said.