The Politically Charged Murder Shaking Paris

How France’s far right is using the killing of a 12-year-old in its fight for ethnonationalism

A black-and-white photograph of a memorial for Lola
Samuel Boivin / NurPhoto / AP

On October 14, the mutilated body of a blond-haired 12-year-old named Lola was found folded up in a plastic suitcase in the courtyard of her family’s housing project in Paris’s 19th arrondissement. The official cause of Lola’s death was asphyxiation, but investigators also found signs of torture, including cuts on her neck and face, and the numbers 1 and 0 scrawled, inexplicably, on the soles of her feet. She may have been sexually abused. This shocking and brutal crime has dominated the news in France and reverberated throughout right-wing traditional and social media well beyond Europe. The main suspect in the killing, identified only as Dahbia B., is a 24-year-old Algerian woman in the country illegally since overstaying a student visa. She was jobless, had no fixed address, and had been experiencing “waking dreams” during which she made “incoherent remarks,” according to her sister. And she had received an expulsion order as recently as August 21, when she was stopped by customs officers at an airport in Paris.

In many ways, the response to this atrocity has been predictable. “Once again, the suspect of this barbaric act should not have been in France,” Marine Le Pen, the runner-up in last June’s presidential election and the leader of the right-wing National Rally party, told Parliament on Tuesday. “What are you waiting for to act so that this out-of-control illegal immigration is finally stopped?”

Le Pen’s chief rival, the writer and media personality Éric Zemmour, whose Reconquest party outflanked Le Pen on the right, capped off a week of activism and feverish tweeting about the murder with a protest billed as #ManifPourLola (“Demonstration for Lola”) in Paris on Thursday evening. Demonstrators included “the monarchists of Action Française, the hooded and masked youths of the violent Zouaves, and the fundamentalist Christian group Civitas,” according to Le Monde. Before heavy rainfall and lightning cut the gathering short, they broke out into a rendition of the French national anthem while “shouts of ‘Remigration!’ ‘Death to pedophiles!’ and ‘This is our home!’ resounded briefly, a reminder of the protesters’ political affiliations.”

Lola’s parents have requested the tragedy not be made into a political weapon. Nevertheless, Zemmour, Le Pen, and their sympathizers have insisted that it is out of respect for the slain girl and her family that they refuse to let the media and the Macron administration escape accountability for the crisis of illegal immigration. And to an extent, they have a point that demands to be taken seriously. “Over 62,000 people identified by the authorities as being in France illegally were ordered to leave the country in the first half of 2021,” The New York Times reported. “But less than 6 percent of them actually did so, and since Mr. Macron’s election in 2017, that figure has never been higher than 15 percent.”

A country must be able to enforce the integrity of its own borders, and France is failing to expel adequate numbers of undocumented migrants who enter illegally or, like Dahbia B., overstay their visas. Stating this fact should be no more controversial than it is to insist that a particular can never prove a universal: Immigrants, regardless of status, are as morally varied a group as any other.

Where the discourse has turned sinister is in the not-at-all subtle racial instigation. In recent years the term femicide has been popularized through graffiti campaigns to raise awareness of the quotidian reality of gendered violence that seldom makes headlines. Just this past September, Zemmour, coined a derivative neologism: “The beating, the rape, the murder, the attack with a knife of a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman by an emigrant, is not a news item,” he told a crowd at his party’s summer university in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region. “No more a news item than the murder of a woman by her husband. It is a political fact that I will now call ‘francocide.’”

Since Lola’s death a week ago, that ethno-term has gained widespread traction—particularly on social media, where it’s become a popular hashtag—fueled by the underlying assumption that any attack or crime perpetrated by a non-French migrant against a French person is inherently racist and racially predatory. Unstated but clearly intended is the corresponding understanding of Frenchness as synonymous with whiteness and foreignness as equivalent to nonwhiteness. As the writer Raphaël Enthoven replied to Zemmour on Twitter, “The fight against the ‘francocides’ would probably be less lively if the victim were a black French Muslim and the culprit a white Polish Catholic.” Although proving a counterfactual is impossible, it is certainly difficult to picture the nationalists grabbing their umbrellas and massing in the pouring rain to protest the latter situation.

What the abysmal murder of a 12-year-old—by all indications at the hands of a severely troubled person—has revealed, then, is the degree to which recourse to abstract identity markers and crude identitarianism obscures instead of illuminates complex human realities.