French court jails man for 2020 cathedral arson attack

A French court on Wednesday handed a four-year jail term to an arsonist for starting a fire that severely damaged a Gothic cathedral in the city of Nantes in 2020.

French court jails man for 2020 cathedral arson attack
Firefighters working on July 18, 2020 to put out the fire at the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France. (Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP)

Emmanuel Abayisenga, a 42-year-old Rwandan, is also facing legal action for a separate incident in which he allegedly killed a priest in western France in 2021.

The court ruled that Abayisenga was not mentally sound at the time of the fire at the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paulwhen it handed down the sentence.

The court also banned Abayisenga from bearing weapons and staying in the western Loire-Atlantique region, where Nantes is located, for five years.

His lawyer, Meriem Abkoui, said her client’s answers in court occasionally “lacked coherence” and that his criminal responsibility was questionable.

She added that she was waiting for the results of psychiatric tests in the other legal proceedings against him, saying his trial for the priest murder could take place late next year.

Abayisenga, who arrived in France in 2012 and had been a volunteer for the local diocese, had admitted causing the blaze at the start of the hearing.

He said he had entered the cathedral to pray but then “lost control” after passing by a location in the building where he suffered a violent attack in 2018.

Speaking through an interpreter, he said he regretted what happened and asked for forgiveness.

Abayisenga has a history of unsuccessful asylum claims and received an order to leave France in 2019, which was said to have deeply troubled him.

The court acknowledged the defendant’s health issues, including hearing difficulties, incontinence, lung problems and eating disorders.

Prosecutor Veronique Wester-Ouisse said the defendant set fire to the cathedral knowingly due to “huge anger and a feeling of revenge linked to his administrative situation”.

Firefighters were able to contain the blaze quickly and save the main structure, but its famed 17th-century organ, which had survived the French revolution and bombardment during World War II, was destroyed.

Also lost were priceless artefacts, paintings and stained-glass windows that contained remnants of 16th-century glass.

The cathedral’s owners estimated the damage at more than €40 million.

The blaze in Nantes came 15 months after the devastating fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which raised questions about the security risks for other historic churches across France.

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UPDATE: French court jails two over attack on Brigitte Macron’s relative

A French court on Monday sentenced two men to jail after convicting them on charges of beating up the great-nephew of French first lady Brigitte Macron last month outside her family's chocolate shop.

UPDATE: French court jails two over attack on Brigitte Macron's relative

The court in the northern city of Amiens sentenced one of the accused to 12 months in prison and the second to 15 months for the attack on Jean-Baptiste Trogneux. A third defendant was acquitted.

The attack on Trogneux was widely condemned by French politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron who called it “unacceptable,” while pointing the finger at his opponents, whose “verbal violence” he suggested had encouraged the assault.

It came during soaring tensions in France over his government’s pension reform, which the president signed into law without a parliamentary vote.

The attack on Trogneux in Amiens on May 15 came on the sidelines of an unsanctioned demonstration against the government’s pension reform.

The three suspects, aged 20, 22 and 34, were originally to be tried in a fast-track process two days after the attack, but their lawyers asked for more time to prepare a defence.

Brigitte Macron’s family has run the Jean Trogneux chocolate shop in the centre of her home city of Amiens for six generations.

Her great-nephew was returning to his apartment above the store when he was recognised by the protesters, who left him with several broken ribs, a head injury and a hand wound, according to his father.

According to his lawyer Franck Delahousse, he tried to defend the shop window which had been previously targeted during a demonstration. The shop has already been under police protection for several years.

Among the defendants, who already have criminal records for violence and assault, the youngest, Florian Careel, is illiterate, while the oldest, Yoan Leroy is under legal guardianship.

Prosecutors had asked that Yoan Leroy be given three and a half years in jail, Careel two and a half years, and the third defendant one and a half years.

Careel was sentenced to 12 months behind bars, with another year suspended. Leroy was given the toughest punishment with 15 months in prison, and another 15 months suspended.

Marc Blondet, the lawyer of the third defendant said his client could barely read or write. The third accused was acquitted on the grounds of being given benefit of doubt.

“These are young people who have been on a chaotic journey, and have special or psychological needs,” he said.

During this hearing, only Careel, who already has convictions for rape and sexual assault, admitted giving “a slap” to the victim to defend “friends”.

The other two admitted to having put trash cans in front of the shop but denied striking any blows.

Four other people arrested in this case were released after questioning.

A 16-year-old girl, who has also been charged, will go on trial at a later date at a juvenile court.

Both Brigitte Macron, 70, and Emmanuel Macron, 45, hail from Amiens, the town where they met while she was his drama teacher at a private school.

She was married and had three children but subsequently divorced from her first husband.