Cover: Death of a Traveller by Didier Fassin

Death of a Traveller

A Counter-Investigation

Didier Fassin

Translated by Rachel Gomme



For Angelo’s sister, for his parents, and for all those who fight for truth and justice on behalf of the ones injured or killed by the police

The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.

Djalâl al-Dîn Muhammad Rûmî

The more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity’.

Friedrich Nietzsche


This project would not have been undertaken without the collaboration of Angelo’s family. I am profoundly grateful for the trust they placed in me throughout my work and for the integrity they showed, in spite of the pain this story still aroused in them more than two years after the tragedy. My thanks are also due to the other people involved in this case, particularly in the Justice and Truth Collective. I am equally indebted to the lawyers and magistrates who gave me the benefit of their insight and their skill as well as their view of the victim, the events that led to his death and the judicial procedure that followed, and in particular to the public prosecutor who generously granted me access to the case file. Having chosen to maintain the anonymity of the protagonists and not to name the places where they live and work, I cannot express my gratitude to them by name.

The research on which this book is based was supported by funds from the NOMIS Foundation within the context of a research program I designed around the theme of crisis. The warm welcome this unconventional project received from Séverine Nikel at Le Seuil, before even a single line had been written, played an important role in my decision to carry it through, and our subsequent discussions helped me to clarify my position in this experimental writing. It is a pleasure for me to have it now published by Polity, and I am thankful to John Thompson for having fast-tracked its publication. The translation made by Rachel Gomme is once more remarkable for its attentiveness to the slightest semantic inflections in the text. And Munirah Bishop’s help has been, as always, precious.

Finally, the almost daily conversations I had with Anne-Claire Defossez throughout the period of writing, and her comments on the book, helped me to resolve a number of problems that I faced, to reorient myself when I went off track, to clear the doubts that obscured the way forward, and – without reaching them – to test the limits of her patience.

A Simple Story
Preface to the English Edition

It is a simple story. Somewhere in France, a man from the Traveller community is sought after he fails to return from home leave to the prison where he has been serving time for a number of robberies that did not involve violence. As he is visiting with his parents at the family farm, an elite unit of the gendarmerie, the GIGN, heavily equipped and armed, launches a major operation. Hiding in the dark in a lean-to, he is discovered and killed. The men who shot him assert that he attacked them with a knife and they were obliged to fire in legitimate self-defense, but not before they had announced their presence and attempted to bring him under control without the use of weapons. Five members of his family who are present outside the lean-to, held handcuffed on the ground at machinegun point a few yards from the site of the events, maintain that the shots came only a few seconds after the gendarmes entered the lumber room, without either warning or the sounds of a struggle. An inquiry is immediately opened by the national gendarmerie’s investigation department; its conclusions support the account given by their colleagues. The public prosecutor makes a statement that reiterates this version but, because a man has died, requests a judicial investigation. Taking into consideration some troubling elements in witness statements and expert witness reports, the examining magistrate decides to place the two officers who fired the shots under investigation. However, eighteen months later, just before giving her ruling, she is transferred to another jurisdiction. The colleague who takes over from her is in her first posting as examining magistrate and has to draw up the final ruling immediately after her appointment. She follows the public prosecutor’s analysis and dismisses the case. The family lodges an appeal. It ends with the same ruling. The two GIGN men who fired the fatal shots will therefore never be brought to trial. Deeply traumatized by her brother’s death, suspecting from the outset that the gendarmes are lying, and shocked by the speed with which the public prosecutor moved to validate their version of the events, Angelo’s sister commits publicly to ensuring that, as she puts it, the truth is told and justice done. She takes the lead in a local campaign that echoes those led by other young women whose brothers have also died in interactions with law enforcement without the officers involved in these deaths ever being convicted. When the final appeal is rejected by the Court of Cassation she submits a petition to the European Court of Human Rights, in the hope that it will issue a judgment against the French state both for the circumstances of her brother’s death and for the way the justice system proceeded in exonerating the gendarmes who killed him.

A simple story, then. A minor incident that did not even merit a mention in the national media. Only the local newspaper reported it, in brief articles that reiterated the public prosecutor’s version without any attempt to inquire into the family’s testimony. Yet what merits attention is precisely the fact that it is such a routine occurrence. Its apparent insignificance is what makes it significant. It combines all the elements present in any number of similar incidents that take place every day throughout the world: young men belonging to ethnic minorities who die as a result of encounters with the police; inquiries conducted by colleagues of the presumed perpetrators who confirm their account of the events; prosecutors and judges who decide not to pursue the case and accept their claim of legitimate self-defense. No homicide, therefore no case to answer. Lives stolen without justice being done. But, beyond this common set of circumstances, what makes this incident exemplary is, on the one hand, the normalization of deployment of special units and their disproportionate use of force as standard procedure in poor neighborhoods with a high ethnic minority population and, on the other, the increasingly generalized use of incarceration in response to offenses committed by lower-income sectors of society, contrasting with the leniency the law and judges exhibit toward crime and criminality among the privileged classes.

Such tragedies have long remained invisible to the majority of the population. The official versions justified punitive practices by stigmatizing the victims and exonerating the police officers responsible in the name of public order. But in recent years political campaigns have brought them into the foreground. In the United States, there is the Black Lives Matter movement, which burgeoned after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. In France, the Justice and Truth committees have become vocal, the best known of which concerns Adama Traoré, who died in the police station at Beaumont-sur-Oise shortly after his arrest in 2016. Above all, the images of the dying moments of George Floyd, suffocated by a police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, have given this tragic event a worldwide impact, resonating with the police violence toward minorities experienced in many countries. What was until recently a blind spot in the public space is now common knowledge. What societies had implicitly tolerated seems to have become intolerable. Angelo’s death finds its place in this new moral economy, where what is at issue is not only the extinction of a life but also the indignity of the circumstances of this death, particularly the treatment of the deceased’s body, and the institutional lies that usually allow those responsible to go unpunished, further sullying the victim’s memory. Like a modern Antigone, the sister fights to restore respectability to her dead brother and, through him, to the Travellers, who are continually stigmatized and discriminated against, and she thus stands against all the Creons who lay claim to public authority.

But how can an account of this tragedy be rendered without eliding the issues involved? Is there a way to escape having to choose between outraged condemnation of an injustice and a bare description of the facts? This is a classic dilemma for social scientists, who often profess the value neutrality advocated by Max Weber, yet are aware that they are bound up in what Norbert Elias described as an involved epistemology. Over recent decades the answer has continually oscillated: in the French context, the tension is between the critical sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, declared to expose hidden power relations, and the pragmatic sociology of Luc Boltanski, supposed to establish a pure grammar of action and justifications for it, which dominated their field alternately in the late twentieth century. Rather than asserting that a solution to this dilemma has been found, it can be fruitful to take the view that this is an aporia which needs to be treated as such.

On this basis, I therefore proposed to approach Angelo’s death from two distinct directions. In the first stage, I strove to reproduce each of the testimonies gathered by the investigators and by myself, not only from those present at the scene but also from people who became involved later, so as to give an account from each individual’s point of view, whether that of the sister, the medical doctor, the public prosecutor, the local journalist or the examining magistrates. In the second stage, I attempted to carry out anew the investigation, drawing on all the available material, from records of depositions to expert witness reports, so as to produce a reconstruction of the events that, being based purely on empirical data, is as free as possible of bias and pressure. The writing strategy I have devised is therefore experimental. It seeks first to avoid the false objectivity of any unequivocal statement of the facts, as I give space to discordant voices and incompatible versions. It then makes it possible to do away with a comfortable relativism that would be limited to parsing each individual’s argument, since at the end of my analysis I propose an account of the events as they might plausibly have unfolded. My aim therefore is to open up the black box of the functioning of the state, more specifically its law-enforcement mechanisms, the police and the justice system, rather than adopting the position habitually taken by the social sciences on the outside. To put it another way, my aim is to investigate the investigation, and to do so by revealing what the judges caused to disappear. This is a delicate process and a risky endeavor, though. The judicial investigation is indeed legally protected by judicial confidentiality that may be lifted only by the public prosecutor. By dismissing the case, and consequently preventing a trial from being held, the examining magistrate removed the case from public view. By reopening the file, I make the various elements in it accessible to readers.

The field of research in which I present my proposition thus sits on the boundary between history and literature, between law and journalism. It is not a new one, but it is one that I invite readers to explore afresh. Michel Foucault recounts how, when he discovered the story of an early nineteenth-century parricide whose astonishing memoir describes how he committed a triple murder in his own family, he and the students in his seminar fell under the spell of both the case and the text. The story immediately aroused his interest, but it also moved him. It enthralled him, in the strong sense of the word, on both these levels. It was only later that he decided, with his young colleagues, to publish I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother …, gathering together the extant documents, including the famous memoir, and adding a series of notes that effectively represent the reflections of the researchers in this little group. The aim, one of them later noted, was to make all the material in the case file available to the public. I think I can say that my relationship to Angelo’s story followed the same course. The circumstances of his death attracted my attention, while the courage and determination demonstrated by his sister aroused my sympathy. The idea of making it the subject of research and of a book came to me only a year later, here too in order to enable a broad audience to form their own view of what really happened in the lean-to that day, and what could possibly explain the great disproportionality between the crimes with which the young man was reproached and his eventual fate. Unlike the collective of authors at the Collège de France, I have not published the documents themselves, which would have been against the law, but I have integrated them into the accounts I have put together and the counter-investigation I have conducted.

The published archive therefore comprises not raw material but, rather, narratives and analyses drawn from it. As far as the narratives are concerned, the reconstitution of the various versions is akin to the literary form of the non-fiction novel, and the reference that immediately comes to mind is In Cold Blood, in which Truman Capote recounts a quadruple murder that took place in a small town in Kansas. Asserting that everything contained in this account derives from his own observations, his interviews and official records, he usually adopts the position of omniscient narrator, producing a third-person account that alternates the points of view of the murderers, the victims, the police and others related to the crime and criminals. Since the crime has been solved, the perpetrators having confessed, he is able to construct a coherent narrative. For my own part, while I draw on similar kinds of empirical material and alternate the viewpoints of eight individuals more or less directly involved in the events, I do not pass over the inconsistencies in these versions, which, at least as far as Angelo’s death is concerned, are irreconcilable. Since the circumstances in which the gendarmes were led to open fire were never fully elucidated, I give readers the opportunity to follow the trail and grasp the experience of each of the protagonists as they describe it, without prejudging the veracity of their account. What I am writing is not a novel but an investigation. As far as the analysis is concerned, the exploration of the various modalities of truth, the deconstruction of the rationales for lying among the police, the flaws in the investigation and the justifications for the dismissal of the case resemble the means in a work of detection, similar to the method by which Carlo Ginzburg proceeds in The Judge and the Historian. His book was written in defense of his friend Adriano Sofri, who was accused of having organized, sixteen years earlier, the execution of a police chief himself suspected of being responsible for the death of an anarchist. To this end, Ginzburg points out the implausibilities and contradictions in the suspect avowals of the informer who accused three of his former Lotta Continua comrades in exchange for a suspension of sentence for his own involvement, and he discusses the question of evidence and proofs, which are necessarily treated in different ways depending on whether one is conducting a trial or undertaking research, as the title of the book suggests. Although the event under consideration and the judicial process are very different in my case, I proceed similarly to a counter-investigation. However, I do so not having decided in advance that the gendarmes did not fire in legitimate self-defense but by systematically taking up each piece of evidence the judges drew on or, conversely, ignored in their process of establishing what they call judicial truth. It is what ultimately leads me to propose another interpretation of the facts, one that pays more attention to the improbabilities and contradictions in the official version and that aligns better with the existing evidence and proofs.

What fascinated Foucault and his fellow researchers in the story of Pierre Rivière was the process of veridiction at work, among the doctors, judges and the murderer himself, in a case that combined crime and madness, criminal responsibility and mental health. What drove Capote’s investigation and Ginzburg’s counter-investigation was the possibility of drawing out a truth, in the first case through literature, in the second in the name of justice. These, then, are two distinct projects with regard to the question of truth-telling: for Foucault and his colleagues it is the interplay of utterances of truth that interests them; for Capote and Ginzburg it is the truth itself that is at stake. The present book moves progressively from the former to the latter, from the operation of veridiction toward the search for truth. This truth, which I have called ethnographic truth, is independent of the relations of power and knowledge underlying the production of judicial truth. It has no argument to make apart from the fact that it arises out of the twofold decision to give all accounts the same credit and to rely solely on assessment of the evidence. Deliberately limited in its ambition, this version, unlike the judicial truth, has no bearing on recognition of the guilt or innocence of those accused. But it has weight for those to whom truth is habitually denied, for it restores some part of their dignity and even offers them a glimpse of the hope of justice. While it has no impact in the courts, it partakes of an ethical concern.

This concern is a live one. It articulates a matter of urgency. While the death of men in interactions with the police is a frequent occurrence generally fostered by the exoneration of the alleged perpetrators, it is rare to have access to all the evidence in one of these cases, and even exceptional when the case has been dismissed because it is then subject to judicial confidentiality, breach of which is punishable in France by one year’s imprisonment and a fine of €15,000. Having been granted authorization to consult the documents in the case concerning Angelo’s death, I have therefore felt an obligation to put this privilege to good use by seeing this work through. Apart from the singularity of the case, starting with the fact that it concerns a Traveller, with all the marginality, suspicion and ostracism implied by that identity, it seemed to me that, both in the method of intervention chosen to effect the young man’s arrest and in the logic of the judicial process that culminated in the absolution of the two men who fired the fatal shots, there were a number of features that could be identified or inferred in many other cases throughout the world. The details of these cases may vary, but they are tragically alike in their dénouement: the loss of a life and the impunity of those responsible. In this respect the simple story of the death of Angelo, extended through his sister’s fight for justice and truth, acquires if not a universal then at least an exemplary significance.

D.F., August 2020

Terminological Note

The organization of law enforcement and the operation of the judicial system is specific to each country, and even sometimes to each jurisdiction within a given country, as in the United States. Some explanations are therefore in order so as to make the account that follows clear for readers unfamiliar with the French systems.

In France there are two main law-enforcement institutions, which have roughly equivalent authority but distinct legal status and territories of operation. The national police is a civilian force that operates within cities and on their outskirts. The national gendarmerie is a military force operating in rural areas and small towns. There are also municipal police forces under the authority of local mayors, whose role is more limited, complementing the two other forces. In this text the generic term “police” is used to refer to law-enforcement bodies. Angelo’s family, who live on a farm, have only ever had dealings with the gendarmerie, and the two who killed the young man were adjudants (non-commissioned officers), the first rank above beat officer. For the purposes of clarity, the translation uses the term officers for these two in order to distinguish them from the other gendarmes involved in the operation. All belong to an elite unit, the GIGN, or Groupe d’intervention de la gendarmerie nationale (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group), which was created to intervene in terrorist attacks, hostage situations and the fight against organized crime – in other words, circumstances very different from a simple arrest.

The judicial system in France, as in the majority of countries in continental Europe and their former colonies, is based on civil law, derived from Roman law, and thus quite different from the common law that operates in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. One notable feature is the stage of judicial investigation, prior to the trial at criminal court, that is instigated by the procureur de la République (public prosecutor), or requested by the victim(s), and is conducted by a juge d’instruction (examining magistrate). The latter’s role is to establish whether a breach of the law has been committed and whether there is evidence to support charging the perpetrator(s). At the end of her or his investigation, after having received a statement (réquisition) from the public prosecutor and the responses (observations) from the counsels, the magistrate draws up a ruling (ordonnance), which may be either a dismissal (non-lieu), in which case there is no trial, or a referral to the criminal court (renvoi

The victims in the present case belong to the social group known as gens du voyage (travelling people). Determining the right way to name them is always a sensitive matter, for there are several words whose definitions and implications vary depending on context and speaker. The choice has been made here to respect the way the protagonists identify themselves. As far as Angelo and his family are concerned, most of them think of themselves simply as voyageurs (Travellers). The term may seem paradoxical given that they are settled, but it is noteworthy that, at the family property, a former farm, all prefer to sleep in caravans rather than in the buildings, testimony to a sort of nostalgia for a traveling way of life despite the fact that some of them have never known it. They sometimes use the term manouche when speaking about themselves, but never rom (Roma) or gitan (gypsy), since the former relates in their eyes to a specific community and the latter has pejorative connotations. While the translation of the book uses US English, the British English writing of the term “Traveller” has been preferred to differentiate it from the word “traveler,” which refers to a person who is traveling. The double “l” signifies the identity of a group.