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Does French Self-Defense Case Show America's Future Without 'Stand Your Ground?

After being robbed at gunpoint, a shopkeeper killed his assailant. Now it's the shopkeeper who is on trial for murder. Is America heading in the same direction?

France, a country where gun crime is rare but violent robberies increasingly frequent, is divided in the wake of a robbery turned deadly on the morning of Wednesday Sept. 11 in the French Riviera city of Nice. Two armed thieves surprised 67-year-old jewelry storeowner Stéphane Turk as he was raising the metal shutters of his small store.

After being held at gunpoint, Mr. Turk fired multiple times on the thieves as they attempted to flee the scene, killing one: 19 year-old Anthony Asli. The young man was well known by local police, arrested 14 times for theft and back on the streets only a month after his last stint in prison.

After being held for questioning, the local state prosecutor, Eric Bedos, announced Friday that Mr. Turk would be charged with ‘voluntary homicide’ (equivalent to second-degree murder in the U.S.). The prosecution rejected the hypothesis that the shopkeeper acted in self-defense, arguing that Mr. Turk demonstrated his intention to kill the robber by firing on him as he fled the scene of the crime.

In a climate of increasing insecurity and an upcoming penal reform many see as lax, the charges immediately sparked outrage in both camps. At the center of controversy is no longer whether Mr. Turk’s deadly force was proportional to the immediate danger he faced at the moment he pulled the trigger (the requirement for legitimate self-defense under French law), the debate having quickly evolved into a more philosophical debate that is all too familiar to most Americans.

The divide largely runs along existing political cleavages in the country. On one side are many on the left, portending to defend the rule of law and procedural justice. Mr. Turk’s detractor’s have portrayed him as a sort of yahoo, arguing that he took justice into his own hands by killing Anthony Asli as he fled. Media attention has also quickly trumpeted the deplorable social conditions of the young man’s upbringing, while also caricaturing Mr. Turk’s supporters as racist, although the young man killed was in fact French and Mr. Turk is an immigrant.

The ordeal has also mobilized millions to come to the storekeeper’s defense. By last count, the largest Facebook group counted over 1.6 million supporters and sympathizers around the country have marched in the streets to demand that the charges be dropped. Many of those that have sprung to the defense of Mr. Turk are fed up with the seeming impotence of French police to stop the unabated rise of criminality in many parts of the country. Speaking on the radio station Europe 1 today from an undisclosed location, Mr. Turk expressed his sympathy for the family of the defunct, but pleaded listeners to keep in mind that he was first a victim.

President of the Union of Jewelers and Watchmakers, Christine Boquet, told the local newspaper, Nice Matin, that the atmosphere of insecurity "creates enormous stress for the merchants. They live with this fear and insecurity every day." Mr. Turk had already been attacked and robbed once by armed thieves in October 2012 in a similar incident. It was after this robbery that he purchased the handgun implicated in the shooting. In addition to the perceived failure of the police, many believe that the French justice system itself is incompetent and too lax. Recently, three violent offenders were dispensed of their prison terms in the town of Chartres because the prison was overcrowded.

The Socialist Party, which currently holds both the presidency and a majority in the parliament, finds itself in a difficult position, having to sympathize with the security conditions that led up to the tragic death, while also condemning the acts of the storekeeper. Upcoming municipal elections will be a referendum of the Socialist’s first two years in power and insecurity has historically loomed large in local politics. The incident is also unfolding against the backdrop of a looming penal reform that is dividing the country. In an on-air interview, France’s top security chief, Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls, attempted to walk the perilous line between outrage and sympathy saying the storekeeper was both “a murderer and a victim”.

This is not the first time an incident like this has divided the country. In December 2010, a farmer shot a man stealing truffles from his property. Unfortunately, the man later succumbed to his wounds. The farmer told investigators that he was frightened by the man who had come onto his property at night carrying a pick-axe like tool used for harvesting truffles, however, the French justice system considered that the farmer was at fault and charged him with second-degree murder.

These incidents are symptomatic of a deep uneasiness in a country that likes to boast its carefree lifestyle. The French people have increasingly come under the impression that they do not have the right to defend themselves, their families and their livelihoods. Disillusioned, the French Left seems to interpret this outrage an attempt to give carte blanche to victims to exact extrajudicial revenge, saying they don’t want to drift towards an American conception of self-defense. However, under current laws, victims are petrified that they will be dragged before a court to face charges brought by their assailant. As the U.S. reflects on the right mix when it comes to self-defense, it may be useful to consider France’s current predicament.

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