French rally behind their own ‘Tony Martin’
An intruder carrying a gun and a can of petrol died when his victim decided to fight back
Philippe Joron was one of the most respected professors at the Paul Valery University in Montpellier, one of three such establishments in the charming Mediterranean city in southern France. The 45-year-old lectured in anthropology and sociology, and had chaired public debates in Montpellier on youth violence. Perhaps it was his knowledge that saved his life.
One month ago, on the night of Monday October 19, Joron (pictured inset, above) was at home with his wife and 13-year-old son in Juvignac, a village on the western fringes of Montpellier, when he thought he saw a figure in his garden. Opening his front door to investigate, Joron found himself looking into the masked face of a man brandishing a pistol.
The man had other items with him, including three litres of petrol. Once he had forced the family to lie on the floor, he allegedly doused them with petrol and demanded to know whether they had any money in the house. Joron replied that there was no money, just his wife's jewellery and some computers, to which the intruder was welcome.
Then the man began to insult the professor, addressing him by his name, and jeering: "I'm not here by chance". When he produced some rope to bind his victims, Madame Joron panicked and jumped to her feet, whereupon she was struck in the face.
It was at this point that Joron's "survival instincts" kicked in. "I threw myself on him and we crashed to the floor, which is when he dropped the gun," the professor said later. "My son grabbed it... I didn't let go of the man because I knew the danger my family was in."
What exactly happened next is the focus of a judicial inquiry that has gripped, and outraged, southern France in equal measure. According to Joron, he told his wife and son to get out of the house and alert the neighbours. He, meanwhile, continued to restrain the intruder in a headlock. The police were quick to arrive, but when they did, the masked man was dead. A subsequent autopsy revealed that the man had died not from strangulation but from a "compression of the heart against the ribcage'.
However, that revelation was nothing compared to the one concerning the Jorons' assailant. The dead man was named as 27-year-old Saïd Ouamalik, an individual who had previous convictions for threatening behaviour, possession of an illegal weapon and arson. Ouamalik had also spent time in a psychiatric hospital but in recent years it appeared he had been trying to turn his life around.
In 2006 Ouamalik enrolled in a degree course at Paul Valery University. Described by his peers as "solitary and withdrawn", he dropped out towards the end of 2008, allegedly because he failed the module taught by Joron.
According to the assistant prosecutor of Montpellier, Georges Gutierrez, Joron has a vague recollection of a student coming to see him a year ago to ask for a better grade in his sociology module otherwise he was in danger of failing the course. Joron refused. Was this Ouamalik? Joron, who lectures to hundreds of students a year, can't remember.
Joron's wife and son were hospitalised following the attack, but it's the treatment meted out to the professor that has enraged much of France. He was arrested on charges of homicide volontaire (as opposed to homicide involontaire, in which death is caused by 'accident or imprudence') and is waiting to find out if he will have to stand trial.
For Britons, the incident will revive memories of Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who, in 1999, shot and killed a burglar at his remote farmhouse and was subsequently sentenced to life for murder [reduced on appeal to manslaughter].
But if that case divided Britain between those who supported Martin's right to defend his property and those who thought he had taken the law into his own hands, the majority of French people back Joron. An online petition of support for Joron started by his students and addressed to 'Monsieur le Président de la République, Madame la ministre de la Justice, Monsieur le Ministre de l'Education', has received over 30,000 signatures and in Juvignac there has already been one demonstration calling on the authorities to clear Joron's name, with more planned if the matter is not quickly resolved.
The professor was arrested on charges of ‘homicide volontaire’
Even members of Sarkozy's own ruling UMP party have thrown their weight behind Joron with one, Jacques Myard, saying the professor should "receive a medal for his act of courage" in defending his family.
Myard stated that it was obvious in his eyes that Joron's act is covered by article 122 of the French penal system in which a person is allowed to use proportional defence if attacked. He also warned that if Joron was charged it would have a "catastrophic effect in a society which is already chronically insecure, while a certain liberal naivety towards delinquency exacerbates [people's] feeling of powerlessness".
But Jean-Charles Teissedre, the lawyer for the dead man's family, who are seeking damages for Ouamalik's death, has cautioned: "To talk of legitimate defence would be a little premature. The circumstances of the death need to be cleared up. How could a man, who is not a martial arts specialist, have the force to kill someone with their bare hands?"
For the moment Joron must wait for the outcome of the investigation. He remains a free man, though he is not allowed to leave the region. However, the horrors of the night are such that he and his family have yet to return to their home.
As for the prospect of resuming his career: "For the moment I don't relish the prospect of standing up in front of 300 students," he said recently. "In fact, I don't know if I'll ever be able to lecture again. In the back of my mind I'll always know that 'he' [Ouamalik] once attended my lectures, and I will see him, in his mask, staring at me." ·
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