In France, Victims’ Fund Struggles to Heal Terrorism’s Traumas

PARIS — For most of her testimony, Célia Viale kept her composure. She recounted the agonizing two-day wait to learn that her mother was among 86 people killed in a terrorist attack. She described a “whirlwind” of visits to the morgue, the police station and a psychologist.

But it was not until she described her struggle to get compensated for her loss that her anger filled the courtroom. “I’m not considered a victim,” Ms. Viale, 28, told the judges. “It seems that having your mother crushed by a 19-ton truck in an attack is not a reason for a traumatic grief.”

For the past several weeks, witnesses, police officers and psychological experts have been called to the stand in the continuing trial of the 2016 attack in Nice, France. Lawyers will make their closing arguments starting next week, and by mid-December, a verdict is expected as to who was culpable for the attack, though the perpetrator was killed at the time.

Instead, the trial was intended to bring a measure of comfort, clarity and catharsis for the victims and help them and the authorities come to terms with why a deeply disturbed Tunisian immigrant whom prosecutors described as self-radicalized plowed a truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day.

But one theme stood out again and again in the testimonies from nearly 300 survivors and loved ones: resentment and anguish at what many described as a cumbersome and harrowing process to obtain compensation from France’s official victims’ fund.

Célia Viale, whose mother was killed in the Nice attack, illustrated the trial while listening this month to the proceedings in Paris at her home in Nice.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Standing feverishly at the bar, survivors and loved ones of victims wondered how much a life was worth. Questioned the classifications assessing levels of suffering. Denounced medical examinations as degrading.

In a country deeply traumatized by years of terrorist attacks, including those on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and other sites in and around Paris in 2015, their grievances have highlighted an unbridgeable gap between infinite sorrow and a remedy where money stands for what cannot be bought.

“They want to estimate the pain, the loss,” Esteban Peña Villagrán, who helped people hit by the truck right after the attack, said of the victims’ fund. “But there’s no price for that.”

Unlike many countries, France has a state-funded compensation program, the Guarantee Fund for Victims of Terrorist Acts and Other Offenses, which provides full reparation covering physical, psychological and economic damages. Compensation is devised as an expression of national solidarity and does not block potential litigation, as was the case in the United States for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

France’s fund was created in 1986, but gained prominence only in the mid-2010s, when the country experienced a series of Islamist terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of people and left thousands more injured or bereaved. Since 2015, over 6,500 people have been compensated, more than in the preceding three decades combined, according to the fund.

Police officers patrolled the streets in Nice in the days after the attack. More than 80 people died after a man plowed a truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

“There’s been a paradigm shift,” said Julien Rencki, the fund’s general director. The organization significantly increased its budget and staff to cope with the influx of victims and facilitate the compensation procedures.

“A great effort,” Mr. Rencki said.

That is not how Caroline Villani saw it.

Ms. Villani, 50, a nurse, lost her son, her mother and her brother in the Nice attack. She still has a video of her mother dancing on the famous seaside Promenade des Anglais, seconds before the truck hit her.

Ms. Villani was compensated for these losses, but she said the fund continued to deny her reparations for the death of her mother’s longtime partner, arguing that because they were not married, he could not be considered a family member.

“He took my children on vacation, he taught them to ski,” Ms. Villani said. “Our family is not recognized as a whole.”

Caroline Villani, who lost her son, mother and brother in the Nice attack, visited a memorial at a roundabout named after that son, André Raffaelli, near her home west of Nice this month.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Many victims at the trials of the Nice and Paris attacks have complained about the burdensome procedure to prove damages, made of paperwork — health certificates, police reports, testimonies from relatives — and medical examinations.

Ms. Viale said she did not understand why a fund-commissioned psychologist determined that the loss of her mother was not considered “pathological grief.” She now worries that eczema flare-ups that left her bedridden for months after the attack will not be recognized as a byproduct of her shock.

“This is highly paradoxical,” Ms. Viale, who is the vice president of a victims’ support group, told the court last month. “We would like not to be victims, but we get the impression that we must prove that we are actually feeling very bad.”

A few days after Ms. Viale, another woman took the stand. Margaux Dariste lost her 2-year-old daughter and had written her a letter that she read, in tears, to the judges.

“I was surprised, after your death, to have to undergo psychological expert assessments,” she said, “for a compensation that has no value.”

She continued, “Because, to me, your life was priceless.”

A makeshift memorial for the Nice attack. The victims’ grievances have highlighted an unbridgeable gap between infinite sorrow and a remedy where money stands for what cannot be bought.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Mr. Rencki said that because the fund provided for full compensation, it must assess the extent of damages as best it can. The organization has published a comprehensive guide listing nearly 30 damages eligible for compensation. Tables give benchmark amounts based on criteria including age, family ties and level of injury.

The psychological suffering resulting from the death of a 17-year-old? Thirty-five thousand euros, or about $35,000. A 65-year-old survivor with a level of psychological and physical injury evaluated at 70 percent? €168,000.

Compensations based on various damages can add up, and a final payment is offered to survivors and bereaved family members when their health is considered stabilized, which can take years.

“It’s true that it’s cumbersome,” Mr. Rencki said of the process, adding that it also aimed to prevent false victims from falling through the cracks. In 2018, a woman who posed as a victim of the 2015 Paris attacks and pocketed up to €20,000 in compensation was sentenced to a six-month prison term.

Several victims compared the fund with an insurance company trying to discourage people from seeking large payouts. “The compensation offers have been characterized by a cost-cautious approach,” said Olivia Chalus, a lawyer who represents more than 100 of the 2,500 living victims of the Nice attack.

Mourning victims of the Nice attack in 2016. France has been deeply traumatized by years of terrorist attacks, including those on Charlie Hebdo and other sites in and around Paris.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Mr. Rencki said that the fund had an unlimited budget and that 70 percent of the victims of the Nice attack had already accepted a final payout. He pointed to a 2019 report by the European Commission that praised the French system’s ability to quickly send emergency payments to help with initial costs related to burials or hospitalization.

Two weeks after the attack, Ms. Villani received €25,000. More allowances followed, helping her care for her youngest son, who was seriously injured in the attack.

But she said she would have liked more human contact, rather than only seeing her bank account topped up and receiving dry letters detailing the payouts.

“We’re nothing but names and figures and files,” she said.

Mathieu Delahousse, a French reporter who published “The Price of Our Tears,” a book on the compensation system for terrorism victims, said the fund had failed to set up a sympathetic process, instead using a bureaucratic approach that seems unsuited to the tragic circumstances.

The impersonal language used in some letters to victims was “utterly violent,” he said.

Ms. Viale’s drawings of the trial. In testimony, she described the agony of the compensation process. “I’m not considered a victim,” she said.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

The issue, however, may boil down to a more trivial aspect: money.

Because the French system is based solely on financial compensation, frustrations abound as to what can be considered fair reparation.

In his book, Mr. Delahousse describes scenes of haggling in which lawyers appealing compensation offers in court argue bitterly with the fund’s counsel about the victims’ expected loss of income or their degree of intimacy with a deceased person.

Ms. Viale said she did not want to “make money off my mother,” but rather true recognition of her trauma — which, in the current system, can only translate into more money.

Mr. Rencki acknowledged that “compensation will never measure up” to the victims’ suffering. He said France should devise new forms of reparations, beyond payments, and pointed to a tutoring program for traumatized children that the fund is developing.

Money, Ms. Viale said, is but a “golden bandage.”

A Nice attack memorial. “They want to estimate the pain, the loss,” Esteban Peña Villagrán, who helped people hit by the truck right after the attack, said of the victims’ fund. “But there’s no price for that.”Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
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