PARIS — When Jérémy Cohen, 31, a Jewish man living in a northern suburb of Paris, died in February after being hit by a tram, his death was initially reported as an accident and garnered little attention.
But the episode set off outrage this week after a video surfaced on social media showing that Mr. Cohen, who was identified by prosecutors, had been fleeing a beating by a group of young men when he crossed the tram tracks — raising suspicions that an antisemitic assault had precipitated his death and turning it into a political flashpoint just days before France’s presidential election.
Candidates entering the final stretch of the presidential campaign are now rushing to demand clarity on the exact circumstances of Mr. Cohen’s death, injecting new volatility into an already close race.
Prosecutors have opened an assault and involuntary manslaughter investigation and, while not ruling it out, have said there is no evidence so far of an antisemitic motive. But no arrests have been made, and the authorities have not yet established why Mr. Cohen was attacked.
Politicians on the far-right have been most vocal about the case — especially Éric Zemmour, the anti-immigrant pundit whose campaign has flagged in recent weeks and who has brushed over the case’s unknowns to depict France as a crime-ridden country. He has vowed that his first symbolic gesture as president would be to visit Mr. Cohen’s family.
But the case also echoed longstanding frustration in the French Jewish community that antisemitism and attacks against Jews are often minimized or mishandled by France’s media and authorities.
“I expect the justice system to shed all of the light on his death and to explore all leads, including widening the legal proceedings to include antisemitism,” Francis Kalifat, the president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, said on Twitter.
Gérald Cohen, Mr. Cohen’s father, told BFMTV on Monday that he had reached out to Mr. Zemmour in hopes of publicizing the death and speeding up the investigation. Mr. Zemmour is Jewish, although his rise — propelled by attempts to rehabilitate France’s Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II — has split France’s Jewish community.
President Emmanuel Macron told reporters during a campaign stop in Brittany, in western France, on Tuesday that he wanted “full clarity” about Mr. Cohen’s death, but cautioned against “political manipulations.”
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The run-up to the first round of the election has been dominated by issues such as security, immigration and national identity.
Mr. Macron is still widely expected to make it past the first round of voting on Sunday, but the latest polls show that his lead in a potential runoff against Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, is dwindling.
In a sign of how seriously he was treating the investigation into Mr. Cohen’s death, Mr. Macron’s office said that he had asked the justice minister to closely monitor the case and to keep him “personally informed” about it.
In 2017, weeks before Mr. Macron’s election, a 65-year-old Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, was thrown out of her window by a man who had smoked cannabis. But it took until 2021 for France’s highest court to rule that the man couldn’t stand trial for her death because it determined he was in a state of acute mental delirium brought on by his drug consumption, prompting widespread outrage. Mr. Macron himself had called for a trial in the case, which is emblematic of the Jewish community’s frustration with France’s legal system.
Mr. Zemmour, who describes France as besieged by Islam and immigration, was the first to bring national attention to Mr. Cohen’s case in several Twitter posts on Monday. He followed up with a scathing opinion article in Valeurs Actuelles, a conservative publication, calling Mr. Cohen’s death a “horrendous symptom of the tragedy that our country is experiencing.”
Other candidates across the spectrum quickly reacted in Mr. Zemmour’s wake.
Ms. Le Pen wrote on Twitter that “what was presented as an accident could be an antisemitic murder,” while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate in the presidential election, expressed support for Mr. Cohen’s family and asked for “truth and justice.”
In the days and weeks after the incident, two of Mr. Cohen’s brothers appealed to people living near the scene of the assault for information, putting fliers in mailboxes. Someone reached out with a video of the incident, which was also shared with the police. It is unclear who initially posted the video on social media, but it gained prominence after Mr. Zemmour shared it.
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That footage of the Feb. 16 assault was filmed at a distance, seemingly by an onlooker in a nearby building. It shows about a dozen young men surrounding Mr. Cohen in front of a building entrance on a busy street in Bobigny, a northern suburb of Paris, at around 8 p.m. Several of them appear to push, shove or hit Mr. Cohen, who falls to the ground.
Another figure then joins the group and starts violently punching him. Mr. Cohen flees and crosses the street onto the tracks and is hit by the tram, trapped in its undercarriage. Mr. Cohen died several hours later in the hospital.
Éric Mathais, the prosecutor in Bobigny, said at a news conference on Tuesday that investigators were questioning witnesses but had not yet determined what had motivated the assault or whether Mr. Cohen had been targeted because he was Jewish. But he said that any new evidence of an antisemitic motive would be taken into account.
Mr. Cohen had a white skullcap that police later returned to his family after finding it near the scene of the incident, but it was unclear whether he was wearing it at the time of the assault, according to prosecutors and Mr. Cohen’s family.
Mr. Cohen’s father said his son was a “kind” man who had studied math and computer science after high school and was “pulling his life back together” after experiencing depression.
“They hit, hit and hit him, but he never defended himself,” Mr. Cohen said of his son, adding that, for him, “the tramway was the result of everything that happened before.”