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Suicide by self-immolation a rising trend in France

AFP file photo

A man burned himself to death in western France on Wednesday after losing unemployment benefits in a suicide that is becoming part of a worrying trend as the country struggles through tough economic times.


At noon on Wednesday, a 43-year-old man got off a bus near a state employment agency in the western city of Nantes. He stopped on a side street around 50 metres from the office, where he discarded his house keys, then doused himself with gasoline. French police waiting at the scene saw the burning man arrive at a sprint and said that, despite efforts to put out the flames, it was too late.

The case of Djamal Chaab, whose application for jobless benefits had been rejected by the agency earlier in the week, has caused consternation in France. It is the latest in a growing list of job-related suicides to hit the country, which is struggling with low growth and record high unemployment.

According to Gérard Schmit, a professor of psychology at Reims University, suicide by self-immolation is “not part of French culture.” However, suicides at the workplace are common in France, like in other Western countries with a strong media culture.

“This man did not have a job, and it is significant that he chose a place where he went in his search for employment,” Schmit noted.

Personal information about Chaab remains limited. According to reports in the French media, he was an Algerian national with a long-term residency permit and a trained metalworker. His death has heightened fears about France’s weak economy and a troubling trend of self-immolations.

Left suicide emails

On February 11, Chaab was informed by Pole Emploi –the name of France’s state employment agency– that he did not meet requirements for monthly cash stipends, and that he needed to reimburse previous payments because of undeclared work he performed for a company in December.

Pole Emploi staff said Chaab was directed toward a different French welfare agency. While he was angered by the news, the jobseeker initially accepted the information with restrain, they noted. The events that followed took local and state officials by surprise.

On February 12, he called a Pole Emploi hotline and threatened to kill himself by overdosing on over-the-counter drugs. Workers alerted the police, who reportedly visited the man at his home. There, Chaab told police his threat was not serious.

The same day, however, he sent emails to local newspapers declaring his intention to kill himself by self-immolation in front of the state agency. Two hours later he followed up his first email with a second one:

“I went to Pole Emploi with five litres of gasoline to burn myself, but it’s closed on 12/02/2013; so it will happen tomorrow the 13th or the 14th, because it really would be better to do it at Pole Emploi, thank you.”

According to Nantes city security officials, police squad cars routinely drove by the employment agency on Wednesday, and were on hand when Chaab finally fulfilled his suicide pledge just after 12 noon, but officers were still powerless to save him.

The man had no criminal record and lived an otherwise normal life, police told the media.

Act of desperation?

On Thursday, Labour Minister Michel Sapin travelled personally to Nantes, where he told reporters that everything had been done to prevent Chaab from killing himself. “Everyone acted as they should have,” Sapin said, adding that the deceased “was in such a state that no helping hand could have stopped him.”

Nevertheless, Chaab is only the latest person to commit suicide over work-related woes in what has become a growing problem for French authorities.

Between 2008 and 2009 over 30 France Télécom employees committed suicide, many blaming management bullying after a string of layoffs. The latest France Télécom suicide took place in April 2011, by a man who set fire to himself in a company car park near the southwestern city of Bordeaux.

Also in 2011, a mathematics teacher set herself alight in front of pupils in the southern French town of Béziers, later dying as a result of her injuries.

In August 2012, a 51-year-old man died from injuries sustained after he lit himself on fire at a welfare agency in the city of Mantes-la-Jolie, around 50 km west of Paris. Similarly to Chaab, it appeared to be an act of desperation after finding out welfare benefits would end.

While Sapin and other French ministers have defended Pole Emploi, many advocacy groups have decried a worsening situation in which agency branches that are overwhelmed do little more than add to the desperation of French jobseekers.

The psychologist Schmit said this week’s dramatic incident in Nantes sounded like what experts call an “altruistic suicide”, which is perceived as an act of sacrifice by the deceased. “It may seem to outsiders like the actions of an isolated person, but that person strongly believes he has a message to convey on behalf of others,” the expert said.

While self-immolations remain a rarity in France, there are already concerns that the latest suicide in Nantes is part of a copycat effect. Schmit warned such acts always had the potential to become an emblem for long-term trends.

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