Lawyer Gaelle Genoun, right, leaves Avignon's courthouse on Dec.… (ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/GETTY…)
SORGUES, France — A T-shirt worn by a 3-year-old nursery-schooler named Jihad has led to an unusual and politically charged criminal trial here that tests the limits of free speech — and common sense — in a France increasingly ill at ease with its growing Muslim population.
“I am a bomb,” the shirt said on the front. The back read, “Jihad Born Sept. 11.”
The prosecution and the defense both have predicted that the outcome is likely to become 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 inhabitants who recognize their roots in an ancient Christian tradition.
The tensions have been increasingly visible as French soldiers combat Islamist guerrillas in Mali, in northwestern Africa, and anti-terrorism police scour the country’s poor suburbs in search of Muslim youths drawn by the call to jihad or by a desire for revenge.
An Islamist cell broken up in nearby Marignane this month, for instance, was preparing to construct bombs for terrorism attacks in French cities, authorities declared. In another sign of the strain, France’s highest court, the Cour de Cassation, last week 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 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. As she dressed the children after a lunch break, a teacher there became alarmed when she saw Jihad’s T-shirt.
Although little Jihad was born on Sept. 11, the teacher saw an outrageous reference to Islamic war and the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed. Concerned, she spoke with the principal, who was equally upset and called in Jihad’s 35-year-old Moroccan-born mother, Bouchra Bagour.
Told of the indignation produced by Jihad’s 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 Mayor Thierry Lagneau. The mayor, from the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, said in an interview that he regarded the T-shirt as a “provocation,” and he 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 Sept. 29 to the region’s chief prosecutor, Bernard Marchal, asking for an investigation for possible criminal prosecution as well as a “thorough” investigation by child-welfare authorities to see if Bagour is a fit mother. If Jihad 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 questioned for about an hour and released. The uncle, 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, Zeyad Bagour’s lawyer.
Zeyad Bagour, who was born in France and works nights in a fast-food restaurant, said in an interview that 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 travel was to Ibiza for a beach vacation, he said he replied.
The most troubling question from police, Makouh said, was put to the mother as well as the uncle: Did Bagour induce labor three years ago so 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.