PARIS — Two men went on trial in Paris on Tuesday, accused of killing an 85-year-old grandmother who survived the Holocaust in a crime that shook France’s Jewish community to its core.
The defendants — Yacine Mihoub, 32, and Alex Carrimbacus, 25 — have been charged with killing Mireille Knoll, in what the authorities and prosecutors have called a hate crime. Ms. Knoll’s partly burned body was found in her Paris apartment in March 2018 after she had been stabbed 11 times and attackers had set fire to her home.
It is unclear whether the trial will succeed in establishing true responsibility for the crime, as each defendant has blamed the other for Ms. Knoll’s death. But it is expected to focus on whether the murder was motivated by antisemitism as prosecutors believe it to be.
The trial, which will last until mid-November, also comes as a Jewish far-right pundit, Éric Zemmour, has turned France’s political landscape upside down with provocations on identity issues. He has especially split the Jewish community by trying to clear France of wrongdoing in some of the worst antisemitic episodes in its past.
The circumstances surrounding Ms. Knoll’s death remain unclear because both suspects, who have past convictions for theft and violence, have given several conflicting statements to the police, sometimes recanting them.
Mr. Carrimbacus, a homeless man, once said that Mr. Mihoub had asked him for help robbing Ms. Knoll before Mr. Mihoub stabbed her in the throat in her apartment. Mr. Mihoub, who as the son of one of Ms. Knoll’s neighbors knew her very well, said it was Mr. Carrimbacus who robbed Ms. Knoll and stabbed her to death.
As a child, Ms. Knoll narrowly escaped France’s most notorious roundup of more than 13,000 Jewish people in 1942 by fleeing with her mother to Portugal. But prosecutors believe it was that same Jewish identity that led to her murder more than seven decades later.
They pointed to Mr. Carrimbacus’s claims that he had heard Mr. Mihoub refer to the supposed wealth of Jews. He also said that Mr. Mihoub, who investigators said had an ambivalent attitude toward Islamic extremism, shouted “God is great” in Arabic during the killing. Judges will have to decide whether they consider this to be a hate crime motivated by Ms. Knoll’s Jewish identity.
The French authorities were quick to call the crime antisemitic, including President Emmanuel Macron, who said Ms. Knoll’s killer had “murdered an innocent and vulnerable woman because she was Jewish and in doing so had sullied our most sacred values and our memory.”
On Tuesday, Gilles-William Goldnadel, a lawyer for Ms. Knoll’s family, said only “a miracle” could get the truth from the suspects’ mouths, adding that he viewed the murder as an antisemitic crime motivated by financial gain.
Ms. Knoll’s murder touched a nerve in the Jewish community, which protested by the tens of thousands in 2018, fearing that antisemitism was on the rise and that the authorities were not trying hard enough to combat it. The killing happened less than a year after that of another older Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, which the authorities were slow to call a hate crime, and a few years after a string of deadly Islamist attacks targeting Jews.
But the concerns about growing antisemitism that are almost certain to permeate the trial have also taken on particular resonance with the rise of Mr. Zemmour, a likely candidate in presidential elections next year.
Mr. Zemmour has shocked the Jewish community by trying to rehabilitate France’s collaborationist wartime regime — the same one that tried to round up Ms. Knoll in 1942 — and cast doubt on the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish army officer falsely accused of treason in the 19th century. But his anti-Islam message has also appealed to some Jews in poor suburbs who say they suffer from antisemitism in the Muslim community.
“It’s a bombshell for the Jewish community,” Daniel Knoll, Ms. Knoll’s son, told BFM TV last week. “Unfortunately, Mr. Zemmour says truths on one side and nonsense on the other side.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Macron seemed to indirectly respond to Mr. Zemmour’s revisionist statements as he inaugurated a museum on the history of the Dreyfus affair.
“Nothing will repair these humiliations, nothing,” Mr. Macron said, referring to the antisemitic accusations against Mr. Dreyfus. “But let’s not worsen them by letting them be forgotten, aggravated or repeated.”