/ 23 September 2007

Death of a pastry chef captures French imagination

It is a story of madeleines, macaroons, petit fours and, if the police are right, murder. It is a story of a patisserie chef, a nightclub owner, a body found in a wood, Paris’s finest investigators and one of the city’s most fashionable districts. It is a story that is gripping France, to the extent that Le Monde, the country’s most respected newspaper, devoted an entire page to it last week.

The key role is that of Xavier Philippe, the apparently unremarkable 50-year-old owner of L’Avion Delices, one of Paris’s best-known patisseries at 32 Rue de Vieille du Temple in the fourth arrondissement. Philippe is currently charged with murder — a charge he strongly denies.

”Xavier Philippe is innocent and we will prove it,” said his lawyer, Frédérique Baulieu. Apparently unremarkable apart from burns on his courteous face, and well liked by the well-heeled clientele and the tourists who throng outside his shop, Philippe, all agree, is an unlikely killer.

The second role is that of Christophe Belle, Philippe’s assistant. It was Belle’s job to open the patisserie in the small hours of the morning to warm up the ovens. His body was found on May 17 2005 with two bullets in the head and a packet of an unidentified powder beside it in a wood in a Parisian suburb. No one knows how he got there, but he left a last message on his boss’s cellphone at 2.56am saying: ”I’ll be there in five or 10 minutes.”

Was Belle, whose speciality was choux pastry and nougat ”horns of plenty”, a secret coke addict? Did he have a second life hidden behind the piles of religieuses and éclairs that his family knew nothing about?

Not according to his sister. ”The only thing that interested him was cakes, ice cream and delicately worked sugar,” she told Le Monde. ”He only ever spoke about that.”

However, he is said to have talked about one thing shortly before his death that interested detectives. Belle’s mother says that she was told by her son: ”Xavier is stealing from the till.”

Also, bizarrely, his boss was the beneficiary of a life-insurance policy in Belle’s name. ”He must have made a mistake,” Philippe is said to have told police during questioning.

Which is where nightclub owner Tony Gomez comes in. For the Marais district’s favourite manufacturer of pain de campagne and brioche, police discovered, did not exactly have a clean police record.

There were the three years served in prison for car theft, fights and possession of firearms; a former girlfriend’s allegations of threats of violence; her allegation that he had drowned a former associate; the accusation that he had burnt down a disco belonging to his mother to get the insurance after a shooting … and then there was Gomez.

Gomez and Philippe shared the management of the Banana Café, a lively bar in the central Les Halles district of Paris. In April 1998, shortly after Gomez noticed shortfalls in the till receipts, a masked man broke into Gomez’s flat and shot the man with whom he lived.

Philippe denied all knowledge — although he had apparently exchanged six phone calls with the gunman in the days before the attack, Le Monde reported.

”I realise now how lucky I was to escape from the clutches of Philippe,” Gomez told Le Monde. ”His strength is to always place himself in the position of victim. He is intelligent and without any morality.”

Philippe will be tried in the coming weeks, nearly 18 months after being arrested. The sister of Belle hopes the mystery of her brother’s death will be solved. ”He has been lucky so far. Now his luck has to run out,” she said, in perfect film noir style.

Outside L’Avion Delices this weekend, the crowds overflowed on to the pavement. The queue in the patisserie included American tourists, local designers, a visiting British writer and four female Spanish students who said they were searching for Paris’s best baguette.

But there is more to this patisserie than pastry. — Guardian Unlimited Â