FRANCE: The bashing death of a bus driver in the Pyrenees town of Bayonne earlier this month has reopened age-old faultlines within French society during a pandemic while also attracting those looking to use technology to make a quick buck, writes Therese Taylor.
Philippe Monguillot, a bus driver, was savagely beaten by a group of passengers on 4 July 2020, in the French Pyrenean city of Bayonne. The apparent motive for the attack was that he asked a group of young men entering the bus to wear face masks, as required by law following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also wished to check their tickets. According to some reports, these passengers were breaking another rule by having an unrestrained dog with them.
The bus driver died in hospital on July 10. His family and community have been immersed in grief. His death also drew comment from prominent political figures, and was covered in the international news, because of the way that it combined a series of current issues. Resistance to wearing face masks, racism, violence, and social divisions were all manifest in the tragic death of Philippe Monguillot.
Four men have been arrested in connection with this crime. They remain in police custody. As is usual in France, their identities will not be made public until the investigation is brought before a court.
The death of Philippe Monguillot took place just before July 14 – France’s national day and, in normal times, a day of parades and nationalistic celebrations. All that is suppressed this year, because of the Corona virus, but in Bayonne, the community took to the streets, and marched, dressed in white, in mourning for Philippe Monguillot.
White is a traditional colour of French mourning and religious ceremonies. In this case, it coincides with the racial and political divisions which have inflamed the reporting of this crime. Many have sought to make this case a story about black and white in Bayonne.
A Basque City
Public transport staff in France have complained for some time that they are increasingly subject to assaults and abuse by wayward members of the public. Following this fatality, increased security measures will be put in place for bus drivers in the Bayonne region. They went on an unofficial strike, for 24 hours, when the news of his death circulated in the city.
Olivier Lahet, a delegate for the police union in Bayonne, was quoted as saying, on 7 July, that the suspects are: ‘people who live on the margins of society, who constantly drink alcohol to excess and on occasions take drugs.’
Previously, Olivier Lahet had been in the news on 19 April 2019, when he led a demonstration in Bayonne by police officers themselves, calling for better working conditions, and a halt to the record number of officers committing suicide.
“Each suicide is a separate case,” he stated. “But I think that certain factors have played a big role: the lack of help, the toll of mental stress, the bad working conditions and, in some cases, the management.” Olivier Lahet excluded, however, the Bayonne management in this analysis: “Here, the hierarchy is listening.”
Bayonne is a city in the Basque country, and defines itself as a place of high community values. They treasure memories of their role in the Resistance during World War Two, and in receiving refugees from the Spanish civil war in the 1930s.
In February 2019 the mayor of Bayonne, Jean-René Etchegaray, faced down disapproval from the French state in offering shelter to African refugees who have crossed the border from Spain. He provided a public building with meals and heating:
“I saw that the frontiers were closing, and as far as I’m concerned, there are some fundamental rights that can’t be trampled on,” Mr Etchegaray said, evoking Bayonne’s heritage as a refuge for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and as the birthplace of the great Jewish jurist René Cassin, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’
After the murder of Philippe, French politicians who are critical of high levels of immigration, such as Julien Aubert, have claimed that ideals of sharing and living together are an illusion.
France was struggling with economic stagnation, resistance to any more austerity measures, and communal rifts, well before the Corona crisis. Since 2018, the nation has been roiled by the persistent demonstrations of the Yellow Vest movement, who oppose further austerity measures.
The shut downs caused by the virus, and then the rage of the BLM protests, took place in a harsh landscape. Then, the brutal death of a bus driver in Bayonne ignited a new round of hateful divisions.
As a white, working-class Frenchman, killed by members of the underclass of provincial city, Philippe Monguillot was defined by some politicians as a victim of racial conflict. It was taken for granted that the four young men arrested, described as ‘known to the police’, would have ethnic identities from France’s former colonies in Africa or the Magreb. Unlike the local police officer, Olivier Lahet, who pointed to anti-social conditioning and drug use as causes of violence, these political figures made race and immigration the clarion call.
Soon, members of the French far-right were circulating messages on social media, giving a mug-shot of a black male, and asserting that he was one of the people who killed the bus driver. Others asserted that the killers were named Mohammed and Selim. Such messages were put out by elected members of the French National Front, such as Damien Rieu and Marine Le Pen. They commented sarcastically that in this case had convinced them of the truth of the slogan that “Racism Kills” (#LaRacailleTue). This hashtag was used to disseminate false and inciting news about the crime.
It was a disaster for the man in the photograph, a 29 year old resident of Bayonne. He had nothing to do with the death of Philippe Monguillot, but became an object of public infamy.
The media identify him only by his given name ‘Mourad’, and state that he has started legal action, for ‘calumnious denunciation and defamation’. He is hindered by his lack of financial means, and precarious status. He did not have a residency permit in Bayonne, and the police initially declined to pursue his complaint under criminal law. Mourad then was given representation by a lawyer in Bayonne, who pursued a civil claim, and he has the backing of the local branch of ‘SOS Racisme’.
The social media messages were hastily withdrawn, and Marine Le Pen gave a qualified apology, and blamed the French authorities for the situation, as they had not released the names of the accused men under arrest.
‘I am, obviously, sorry for that man who, if he is innocent, finds himself in such a situation. But you, give out the names.’
SOS Racisme Bayonne is a small civil rights organisation, which proudly proclaims that it has combatted anti-Semitism, discrimination and racism since 1984.
They have taken up this case, first publicising the march in commemoration for Philippe: ‘A white march, dignified and moving, expressing all the emotion of this Basque city …’
Bus driver Philippe Manguillot who was allegedly attacked and killed on his bus in early July after asking a group of passengers to wear face masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic (Image: Le Parisien)
And then informing the public of the situation of the resident of Bayonne falsely targetted in what they termed a ‘media lynching.’
SOS Racisme Bayonne have pointed out that it is disturbing that the photos, distributed on social media, were from a police investigation file. Somehow, these pictures were leaked, and apparently sent to extremist political figures, and used to incite hatred.
The distribution of the photographs is now a matter for an enquiry by the IGPN, (L’inspection générale de la Police nationale.) Any number of rumours are running, including allegations that there are far-right wing activists in the police services, using confidential source materials to stir up strife. Another possibility is that the file was hacked.
A supposed fund-raising appeal, showing a photograph of Philippe Monguillot, has been circulated on social media, soliciting donations through GoFundMe: “The funds gained in this campaign will go directly to the wife of Mr Phillipe. Funds will be at their disposal helping in paying for the funeral, and oncoming financial challenges for them,” the fundraiser states.
This appeal, apparently initiated in England, has rapidly received donations, with some individuals contributing hundreds of pounds. It is disturbing that there is no accountability for the funds received. The Go Fund Me link is circulated through an unverified twitter account, which has not responded to questions about whether any family or community in Bayonne have endorsed it.
There is no indication of any documented communications from the Monguillot family in this fundraiser.
This is the appeal launched by the family – an entirely separate initiative:
Employees of Chronoplus, the public transport network of the Basque Region, also organised a fundraiser, in response to numerous requests from the public.
The bus drivers of Bayonne also have also launched a fund raiser. It has a modest amount, but is entirely local to Bayonne and supported by people who worked with Philippe.
Other organisations with authentic links to the community are worthy of donations. An example is the Eglise Sainte Croix of Bayonne, where 800 people gathered for the funeral of Philippe Monguillot.
This church was very near where he lived. The Mass, celebrated by Fr Jean-Marc Lavigne, began after a traditional Basque song of farewell, by a men’s choir. There are numerous Basque cultural associations in Bayonne.
The memory of Philippe Monguillot, so honoured in his community, must not be diminished by opportunism.
When this case goes to trial, it is to be hoped that the family and community of the victim will receive justice. A large part of this, is to have a true explanation of why this brutal crime took place, and what can be done to prevent any further tragic losses.