book cover imageLaëtitia ou la fin des hommes
by Ivan Jablonka.
Paris: Le Seuil, 2016.
Paperback, 400 pages, €21.

On the night of January 18, 2011, Laëtitia Perrais, an eighteen-year-old French girl, was brutally murdered near the village where she lived in the Nantes region. She’d met her murderer by chance a few days before, a man who had already spent half his life in prison for various felonies. He cut her body in pieces. He was caught soon after and sentenced to life in prison, but it took five months to recover all the body parts so that Laëtitia could be buried.

The long essay Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes, which received several literary prizes last year in France, argues that this particular murder is worthy of attention because of the exceptional violence that accompanied not only the murder, but also the victim’s whole life. And because of the way the case was treated by media and politicians, it brings to light some uncomfortable truths about French society, both the way in which a political power can seize on an atrocious murder as a propaganda tool and the way in which women are treated.

The essay flows in three directions. First of all, most obviously, that of the murder: what happened, where, at what time, and how. Jablonka traces each step the police took to find Laëtitia’s body parts and what happened to her the night of her death.

Second, the book tells the story of Laëtitia herself, a girl born under inauspicious stars and whose ghastly death seems to have been fated. Last, Jablonka details how the French president at the time sought to use this criminal case for his own political profit.

Laëtitia’s disappearance was reported the morning after the crime occurred. Right away, money and resources were put at the disposition of the police, more so than in other cases of disappearances. Laëtitia knew her murderer. Trying to seduce her, he bought her small presents and drinks. She liked him enough at first to agree to see him again. He managed one night to lure her to his home where he probably raped her. He let her go, but he followed her in his car, brought her back to his home and killed her.

Jablonka devises vivid portraits of all the dramatis personae. On the side of the law, we have remarkable men with solid professional consciences, aware of the seriousness of their work, and with respect for all the people they must deal with, be it the victim’s friends and family or the murderer. Two officials led the case: Frantz Touchais, put in charge of the inquiry, made sure every tiny step was taken. Because he lived a hundred miles from the murder location, he moved into a mobile home during the case and only went home to his family for the weekend. He and his team referred and deferred to the “instruction judge,” Pierre-François Martinot. These are the actors who find the body, establish the victim’s last hours, and bring some closure to her friends and family by securing a conviction. Mr. Touchais’s devotion to his work made him refuse promotions that would have taken him out of grinding police work. Jablonka’s book is a tribute to these civil servants.

The suspect, Tony Meilhon, had a vast number of convictions for a variety of felonies, ranging from DUI to theft to physical violence. And even though Laëtitia’s blood was found in his home, the policeman and the judge made a point of treating him as innocent until the body was found and evidence compiled. The police soon suspected that the body had been cut up, but it took time to find the pieces. In February, they discovered her head, arms, and legs in a pond. Four more months later, they found her torso in another pond. Laëtitia could finally be buried.

As Jablonka tells the full story of Laëtitia’s life, it appears she might have been predestined to a violent death. While the book reflects on male violence toward women, it also erects a monument to a single, unique life, that of a young woman who grew up to overcome her own victimhood, dying while standing up to her aggressor.

Laëtitia and her twin sister were born to parents who didn’t get along, the father prone to verbal and physical abuse, the mother constantly in depression. The parents separated, and for a while the girls lived with their father, in poverty, untilhe could no longer take care of them and they were placed in various sorts of foster care and ended up, at age thirteen, with the Patron family, where by all initial accounts they were well treated and accepted as part of the family. They started high school and Laëtitia chose a professional path to work in hotels and restaurants. At eighteen, she was working as a waitress for a couple who liked and watched out for her, had her own scooter (a necessity in a rural region poorly served by public transport), and earned a salary of which she saved almost everything. It seemed like she had broken through her difficult childhood, thanks both to her last foster family and her own resilience. She comes across as an ambitious, joyful young woman.

But Jessica and Laëtitia’s story was not to be one of two poor girls with incapable parents put on the path to normal adulthood thanks to the state and a good foster family.

Beyond the murder itself, the investigation reveals many other sordid details. The dismemberment, of course, and the fact that the murderer, a man with a history of prison convictions, was roaming about completely free. This did not escape the eye of the media covering the case and of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who immediately expressed a personal interest. He invited Laëtitia’s twin sister and her foster parents to meet with him. There came to be a sort of alliance between the president and Mr. Patron, both representing scorned authority.

Because Meilhon’s last conviction had been for insult to a magistrate, and magistrates in charge of his file only looked at the last one, not the heavy pile below, he was not deemed particularly dangerous and so given extra surveillance when he left prison, less than a year before he killed Laëtitia. In the meantime, although several people filed complaints against him for death threats and other offenses, he remained free. The dots between his various violent acts were not connected by judicial notice. Before Meilhon was released, an extensive study of his file would have revealed the possibility, if not the likelihood, of his committing murder.

Sarkozy was thus able to claim that there was something broken in the judicial system. French magistrates did not deny a problem, but pointed to a lack of manpower at all levels: judicial personnel are constantly stretched and overworked. Mr. Sarkozy’s attacks erased the complexity of the problems facedby the French judicial system at the beginning of the century. Instead of initiating reform, Mr. Sarkozy declared judges to be at fault and in effect responsible for Laëtitia’s death. He was pitting the French judiciary branch against the executive and against the people, a new way, some thought, of governing that sowed distrust and division rather than presenting a unified state apparatus.

Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes is a political book. Beyond the story of two young women, of a murder and of the police success, it takes side against a president and his leadership style. An openly feminist book, it presents French society as a world in which women are harassed, hit, raped, and killed. This is indeed what happened to Jessica and Laëtitia and their mother, with the very men who were supposed to protect them: boyfriend, father, and foster father. Not long after President Sarkozy invited Mr. Patron to his side, more facts came out. Mr. Patron has been convicted of the rape of Jessica and five other young women and is currently serving time, in part thanks to Jessica’s testimony.

While the demonstration is brilliant and riveting, one would have liked to see the feminist thesis qualified by considerations of wealth and class. Women in broken families and near the poverty line are particularly vulnerable to male violence. And while Jablonka encourages readers to judge deficient fathers and father-figures, he is silent on the mothers and mother-figures he depicts. What was Laëtitia’s mother doing while the girls’ father was abusing them? Where was Madame Patron when her husband raped Jessica? The twins eventually stood up for themselves without the mother’s help, but Laëtitia was unable to resist the attraction exercised by a dangerous male, possibly because she had not be shown how to by other, older women.  

Eve-Alice Roustang writes from New York City. She is the author of Françoise Sagan, la générosité du regard (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2016).