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CRIME

‘Democracy stronger than barbarism’, Hollande tells attacks trial

Former French president Francois Hollande on Wednesday told the trial held over the November 2015 Paris terror attacks he had no regrets about ordering airstrikes against the Islamic State group, which the assailants claimed as justification for the bloodshed.

'Democracy stronger than barbarism', Hollande tells attacks trial
In court, Hollande launched an impassioned defence of the air strikes that France had been carrying out in Syria against IS, which claimed the Paris attacks as vengeance. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

Hollande, who was president from 2012 to 2017, also said that while the government knew further attacks were being planned after the massacre of a group of cartoonists in January 2015, “we did not know where, when and how they would strike.”

A 10-man jihadist cell evaded detection to carry out the worst attacks in France’s post-war history on the night of November 13, 2015.

Hollande was attending a France-Germany football friendly at the Stade de France stadium in Paris when the first suicide bomber detonated his vest, prompting security agents to whisk him away as two more blasts went off.

Gunmen later opened fire on cafes and restaurants in a lively part of the capital and stormed the Bataclan concert hall, killing indiscriminately and taking hostages in a slaughter which by the end of the night left 130 people dead.

In court, Hollande launched an impassioned defence of the air strikes that France had been carrying out in Syria against IS, which claimed the Paris attacks as vengeance.

“This group struck us not for our actions abroad but for our ways of life at home,” said Hollande.

“Democracy will always be stronger than barbarism.”

Acknowledging that he had reflected on his own responsibility, he said: “I would do exactly the same thing (in Syria). I say this in front of the plaintiffs who are suffering, those who have lost loved ones. This is France, we owed it to the populations who were being massacred (in Syria).”

‘A message’

It remains unclear how many of the assailants or their accomplices entered Europe via the migrant trail and remained at large despite being on the radar of intelligence services.

Some of the victims’ families have questioned whether the bloodshed could have been prevented, prompting one victims’ association, Life for Paris, to request that Hollande be brought in as a witness.

All attackers were killed or eventually gunned down by police except for Salah Abdeslam, a French national of Moroccan origin, who did not detonate his suicide vest and was later captured in Brussels.

When the trial got underway in September, Abdeslam accused Hollande of encouraging the attacks by going to war against IS.

“Francois Hollande knew the risks he was taking in attacking the Islamic State in Syria,” Abdeslam said.

In a sound recording of the attacks found in the Bataclan, the gunmen can be heard telling their victims “they only had Francois Hollande to blame” as they spray the theatre with bullets.

“How did you feel about that?” asked Jean-Marc Delas, a lawyer for Life for Paris.

“It sounded like a kind of refrain, like a signature,” Hollande said.

It was “a message to make us renounce our interventions in Iraq and Syria” and create “a rupture, a religious war” between the French.

Marathon trial

France had been on high alert for jihadist attacks since the massacre of 12 people at the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper and of four others during a hostage-taking at a Jewish grocery store over three harrowing days in January 2015.

“Every day we were under threat. We knew that there were operations being prepared, individuals who mixed with the flow of refugees, leaders in Syria. We knew all that,” Hollande told the court.

“Unfortunately, we did not have the information that would have been decisive in preventing the attacks.”

The court rejected the objections from some defence lawyers to allowing Hollande to testify.

His testimony is the latest chapter in a marathon trial expected to last until May 2022.

In October, the court heard weeks of sometimes harrowing testimony from survivors and relatives of victims.

The trial is the biggest in France’s modern history.

Some of the 20 defendants, including Abdeslam, face life sentences if convicted. Six of the accused are being tried in absentia.

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CRIME

Pressure mounts on France’s new disabilities minister to resign over rape allegations

French President Emmanuel Macron's newly appointed disabilities minister was facing mounting pressure to resign on Monday after the emergence of rape allegations from over a decade ago.

Pressure mounts on France's new disabilities minister to resign over rape allegations

The accusations against Damien Abad, which he denies, are a major headache for Macron and his new Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne as they seek to keep political momentum after his April presidential poll victory and ahead of June parliamentary elections.

They also come after several politicians running for parliament stepped down in recent weeks over alleged violence against women.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle on Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right wing opposition.

READ ALSO Who’s who in France’s new government 

But the next day, the Mediapart news site reported a politics watchdog group created by members of France’s MeToo movement had informed prosecutors as well as Macron’s LREM party of rape claims against Abad by two women in 2010 and 2011.

The government’s new spokeswoman Olivia Gregoire on Monday denied that Macron and his government were aware of the allegations when Abad had been appointed.

One of the women told Mediapart that in 2010 she blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne and woke up in her underwear in pain with Abad in a hotel room, and believes she may have been drugged.

She has not filed an official complaint, but prosecutors are looking into the case following a report filed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics.

The other woman, named only as Margaux, said that her sexual encounter with Abad in 2011 began as consensual, but accuses him of then forcing anal sex on her.

The report said she informed the police in 2012 but then declined to formally make a complaint, and her subsequent claim in 2017 was later dismissed by prosecutors.

“I’m relieved that it’s come out, because I knocked on quite a few doors so that someone would do something after the case was dismissed, as I thought it was unfair,” Margaux told AFP on Sunday.

“A lot of people knew but some preferred to look away rather than ask more questions,” she added.

Abad said in a statement he contested “in the strongest way” the allegations, arguing his own disability means he is incapable of sexually assaulting anyone.

The newly appointed minister has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints, which he says means sexual relations can only occur with the help of a partner.

The allegations overshadowed the new cabinet’s first meeting on Monday, with Gregoire facing a string of questions on the case.

“The government is with those who, following an assault or harassment, have the immense courage to speak out,” Gregoire told reporters.

She added it is up to the judicial system to establish the truth and that, to her knowledge, “no other procedure against Damien Abad is in the works”.

But politicians on the left called for his immediate resignation.

“If I were prime minister, I would tell Damien Abad: ‘I have no particular reason to believe the women are lying… While we wait for a decision from the judicial system, I wish for you not to be part of the government,'” Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure told France Inter radio.

Green politician Sandrine Rousseau also called for Abad to go.

“We need to send a loud enough message to women, that their voices count,” Rousseau told RTL radio.

Borne, herself only appointed last week in the reshuffle, said on Sunday there could be no impunity for harassment and sexual assault.

“If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences,” Borne said.

In 2020, Macron’s decision to appoint Gérald Darmanin as interior minister – although he was accused of rape, sexual harassment and abuse of power – drew heavy criticism, even sparking demonstrations.

Darmanin, who kept his job in the reshuffle, has denied any wrongdoing and prosecutors in January asked for the case to be dropped.

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