The recent anniversary of the Hyper Cacher massacre by a Muslim terrorist in a Jewish supermarket has seen this subject widely debated in the French media. Most people remember how the story of Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee credited with saving lives, emerged as the dominant and very convenient media theme of the attack. I was somewhat suspicious of the story at the time.
Now a book by one of the basement hostages is raising more questions.
In "Hyper Caché" ("Hidden Hyper"), Yohann Dorai says Bathily was turned into a hero by French authorities and a media eager for a positive story: a young Muslim saving the lives of Jews, amid the tensions caused by the January 7, 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and the supermarket attack two days later.
Dorai says he does not recall Bathily playing any role in helping the hostages hide, and claims he himself cut the wires to the freezer so that he and his fellow hostages would not freeze to death.
In fact, he says, he had never heard of Bathily until the media coverage began about the attack.
His book, coauthored with French journalist Michel Taubmann and published on the anniversary of the attacks, recounts the four hours the hostages spent hiding in the freezer, sure they would be discovered and killed. They prayed; Dorai gave his jacket to a child to keep him warm; and they talked and tried to stay calm. He also communicated on his cell phone with a friend, who then relayed information to the police.
The book is dedicated to another hostage, Yoav Hattab – the 21-year-old son of the chief rabbi of Tunis – who went upstairs into the store and grabbed one of Coulibaly's weapons. The gun did not fire and Coulibaly shot Hattab dead.
"Hattab was the hero of the siege," Dorai recalls. "I still ask myself what I could have done to convince him not to go upstairs. I still see his body on the floor of the store, like when I saw it when we finally left with the police. He risked his life to save others, and he was killed."
Dorai, 39, says he has nothing against Bathily. "He is a good human being, and I discovered that everyone in the store liked him very much," he says, "but the French needed a hero and found him – the young Muslim African at home with Jews."
Bathily makes few claims on his own behalf. The real issue seems to be that the media swiftly needs a counternerrative after every Muslim terror attack and he just fit.
The ligue defense juive site has a fairly balanced take on it.
One of them, Yohann Dorai, testifies in the book that it was he and not Lassana Bathily who disconnected the refrigeration system to allow the precarious survival of hostages in an icy area that could become their tomb.
It was also not Lassana Bathily who locked the door of the freezer after the hostages were hiding there without any help young Malian, as evidenced by several witnesses. It was he and not Lassana Bathily who hid a key in the freezer in a corner of the basement and called the police as evidenced by a documentary.
It is he who finally gave his jacket to cover the baby with her mother locked up in this tiny room where it was minus five degrees.
Lassana Bathily, who was already there to store frozen food, then suggested some hostages escape with him by the elevator that would take them on the ground floor to the emergency door to which he possessed the keys. This project seemed too uncertain, no one followed him. Lassana did not insist and initially thought to save himself. Who would dare to reproach him? Once outside, the young handler was immediately unceremoniously arrested by officers... After being convinced that he was no accomplice of the terrorist, Lassana Bathily informed them about the layout of the store which he knew well.
Those aren't bad things by any means, but it seems as if the media wanted a hero badly enough that it was willing to fudge the facts or allow them to be fudged.