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Americas France

The thorny case of Florence Cassez

Text by Lorena GALLIOT

Latest update : 2010-02-05

Faced with mounting public anger, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon have decided to appoint an opaque "Bi-national Commission" to handle the case of Florence Cassez.

"Que se quede!" Splashed across the front page of Mexican newspaper La Prensa, the bold red headline sums up the general sentiment in Mexico surrounding the case of Florence Cassez. No matter what French President Nicolas Sarkozy said during his official visit to the country, the Mexican daily says, the kidnapping-gang-member-turned-martyr-of-the-French deserves to rot in a Mexican jail.

The 34-year-old French native and ex-girlfriend of Mexican criminal gang leader Israel Vallarta was convicted by a Mexican court of participating in at least three kidnappings, and sentenced to 60 years in jail. She has requested to be transferred to a French prison, something she is legally entitled to under the 1983 Strasburg Convention, signed by both France and Mexico.

Plagued by more than 8,000 abductions each year, however, Mexicans are not enclined to show those linked to kidnapping circles any tolerance. "She committed crimes here (in Mexico ), so she should pay for them here," argued the PRD party's senate leader Carlos Navarrete, voicing what he sees as a "consensus" in Mexican opinion.

Indeed, when sifting through the countless blogs or reader reactions discussing Cassez that have sprouted up on the Mexican Web, one is at pains to find any that agree with Sarkozy's call for Cassez to serve her prison sentence in France. "It's all right for governments to defend their citizens, but for a president to make an official state visit to plead the cause of a convicted delinquent is just nonsense," posted one reader of La Jornada's website.

His reaction is among the more polite ones: most Mexican Web users, fuelled by the emotional accusations of kidnapping victims who claim to recognise Cassez as one of their captors, can't seem to find words hard enough to condemn both Cassez and Sarkozy's initiative. If Mexican President Felipe Calderon is perceived as bowing too easily before French demands, he will doubtless face the wrath of his electorate.

In France, on the other hand, many have come to view Cassez as a victim of a corrupt Mexican justice system, due to the numerous irregularities which flawed her arrest and trial. An editorial in the Mexican broadsheet La Jornada admits that "the investigation's blunders gave ammunition to Cassez's defence lawyers". However, it stresses that "Calderon must not cede to French pressures," because it would send a "bad message" to Mexican citizens, who live in constant fear for their safety, knowing that criminals often get away easily.

Under these circumstances, both Sarkozy and Calderon were understandibly keen to pass on the hot potato to somebody else. Which they did, in a way, by naming an obscure "Bi-national Commission" charged with reaching an agreement on Florence Cassez's fate within three weeks.


The commission -- which includes France's foreign affairs minister, Bernard Kouchner, and his Mexican counterpart, Patricia Espinosa, as well as representatives of both countries' justice systems -- was given the near impossible mission of "finding a solution that preserves the interests of the Mexican justice system, the interests of the French justice system, the interests of kidnapping victims and the right for each person to be transferred to a prison in his country of origin, even when found guilty", as President Sarkozy put it during a joint press conference after talks with Calderon.

But conflicting declarations concerning the commission's agenda and domain of competence have made it clear that getting rid of the prickly case of Florence Cassez won't be that easy. Contacted by FRANCE 24, officials of both the French embassy in Mexico and the Mexican foreign affairs ministry refused to comment.

Date created : 2009-03-16