COLUMN ONE : Drug Fears Fuel Fury in Provence : After a villager killed his son, his neighbors were enraged--by the father’s arrest. Supporters across France say the real culprit is rising narcotics use among young people.


Franck Verlaque was bad news, and everyone here knew it. In and out of trouble since his teens, he was, at 23, an ex-con and, his parents said, a drug abuser. He drove recklessly through this quaint village, drank heavily at the local tavern and terrorized his own family.

Then, in September, to no one’s great surprise, Franck was shot to death. The killer turned out to be his own father, a merchant who had recently added the words “Andre Verlaque and Son” to the sign outside his television sales shop.

As his only child lay dying in a shed next to their house, the stocky 52-year-old walked to the nearby police station and said simply, “I’ve just killed my son.” He was handcuffed and led off to jail.


The community was enraged, not by the shooting but by the arrest. Everyone said Andre Verlaque was a good man, an honest man. The real culprits, they decided, were the drugs that have reached into ever-smaller corners of France, turning youths such as Franck into uncontrollable demons.

Trets circulated a petition, contending that Franck’s death “could not, in good conscience, be considered a crime” and asking that Andre be acquitted. The drive quickly collected 5,800 signatures--200 more than the town’s population.

“Sadly, drugs have arrived in our small village,” said Francois Coquillat, a butcher who led the petition drive. “The Verlaque family did everything for their son. They gave him everything. But, in these last days, Franck had become a veritable beast.”

No one outside his family really knew if Franck was a drug addict. His mother said so. And Franck did take tranquilizers, often exceeding the dosage the doctor recommended to calm him down. But hard drugs? No one in town had ever seen him take them.

But the rush to blame drugs for the shooting, and the sympathy that Trets quickly won across the country, symbolized a deeper current in modern France: the frustration and fear felt by people watching drug abuse unravel the fabric of their society, from Paris to the smallest villages.

When the case comes to court next year, the question will be whether Andre Verlaque, during an argument over car tires, killed his unarmed son out of a genuine fear for the safety of his family, as he claims, or out of simple frustration with an errant son.


Either way, the villagers in Trets believe he deserves to be acquitted.

In France, drugs once were considered by most to be an American big-city phenomenon, no closer to everyday life than television and movies. Now, in many cases, the problem of drug-abusing youngsters is as close as the corner cafe.

Recent studies have counted more than 150,000 heroin addicts in France, 10 times greater than just a few years ago. Police in Paris recently seized six pounds of crack cocaine, the largest haul in the city’s history. And the country’s legislators will soon change the law to allow doctors to routinely prescribe methadone for recovering addicts.

More than 45,000 people were arrested in France for drug offenses last year, and of those, 64% were younger than 25. The police seized 18% more heroin, twice as much crack and nine times as many amphetamines in 1993 as in the previous year.

The story of Trets’ troublesome son touched another special nerve in rural Provence, a province known for family quarrels as well as family values.

It was no coincidence that writer Marcel Pagnol chose this sun-kissed setting for “Jean de Florette” and other tales of internecine intrigue.

The Verlaques were, as Andre’s attorney put it, “a French family like so many. So many.”

At the beginning, Franck was warmly welcomed into the family. Andre and his wife, Claude, unable to have a child, adopted him as an infant and doted on him, townsfolk remember.


Andre, descended from generations of Verlaques in this region, wanted nothing so much as to see his son follow in his footsteps, to take over the family business and raise his own family in this peaceful village. “This son was the light of their lives,” said a friend of the Verlaques. “They thought he was the most beautiful child around.”

But Franck grew into a rebellious teen-ager, and the arguments at the Verlaques’ two-story home, in a modest hillside neighborhood on the edge of town, soon became well known.

When he was barely 19, Franck held up a gas station near town. He was arrested and spent two years in the prison where his father would later be held.

After Franck was released, the family resolved to start fresh. He married, and last summer he and his wife, Dominique, had a daughter, Estelle. They lived in an apartment on the second floor of his parents’ home.

Franck and his father went together to the wholesale markets to buy electronic goods for their shop. But at home, at night, the arguments resumed. Police were summoned regularly, and they suggested that Franck’s parents file charges. But the parents declined, fearing that it would hurt their granddaughter and create even deeper divisions in the family.

“He tried to discipline his child often, and always verbally,” said Coquillat, the butcher and a lifelong friend of the elder Verlaque. “He tried to put Franck on the right road.”


Most people in the town knew the family had troubles. But, as the French like to say, they respected the family’s privacy. By that, they meant that they gossiped about the Verlaques but never offered to help.

“We all knew the boy was turbulent,” Coquillat said. “He finished discussions with his fist. He destroyed that family. But no one talked about it. We know, but we don’t talk. That’s our way.”

Franck spent much of his free time drinking pastis--as many as a dozen in a single sitting--in the Cafe de Commerce, on the main road of Trets. The hefty young man, with black hair and a mustache, was a fixture in the dingy barroom surrounded by tarnished soccer trophies.

“People were, well, not afraid exactly, but wary of him,” said Frederic, the bar’s 49-year-old owner.

After the shooting, a copy of the acquittal petition was fixed to the bar’s door. It was headlined: “Solidarity in the Face of Tragedy.” If Franck had any defenders in Trets, they weren’t willing to admit it.

In the days before his death, Franck had seemed depressed, the tavern owner said. Two collisions had left his Fiat damaged and touched off arguments at home.


On the evening of Sept. 1, Franck and his father began their last argument, in front of his mother. Franck’s car had two flat tires, and he wanted to borrow the tires from Andre’s car. It was, as one lawyer in the case said, “the drop of water that made the bowl overflow.”

The argument continued as the men went to a work shed next to the house. There, Andre took the rifle he used for rabbit hunting, hoisted it to his shoulder and fired one shot into his son’s chest. Franck died within minutes.

For the police and prosecutor, the case is open and shut. Franck may have threatened his parents, they say privately. But without any charges or evidence of an immediate threat of violence from his son, Andre had no right to open fire.

In Trets, though, the general feeling was perhaps best summed up by Frederic, the bar owner. “It was well done,” he said. “Franck deserved it. . . . His father did a good thing in getting rid of him.”

As news of the petition drive spread across France, Coquillat, who also heads the local merchants association, was inundated with telephone calls. Mayors in surrounding villages signed the petition.

In Marseilles, about 30 miles away, a mother who had been imprisoned for four years for killing her drug-addict son added her name. A nurse left work to drive to Coquillat’s shop to sign the petition.


“Sir,” she told the butcher, “I thank you because I see drugs circulate in my neighborhood every day, and it’s about time someone denounces it.”

When the petition was delivered to court, it included letters from parents expressing frustration with the problem and their sympathy for a family torn apart by drugs.

“We know that we can never touch the big problem of drugs. It exists and it will always exist,” said Muriel Coquillat, the butcher’s daughter, who remembers playing with Franck when they were children. “But we had to stand together as a town for Mr. Verlaque,” she added. “All of us have known each other since we were children, and we will know each other until we are 80 years old.”

That Franck Verlaque was a drug addict was accepted as a fact. Town leaders believed his mother, who said her son had become an addict while in prison.

“I think he took drugs,” said Marguerite Lyons, the father’s first attorney. “But was he a drug addict? Well, there are worse ones.” She was replaced later by a criminal lawyer more convinced of Franck’s drug addiction.

The family rallied around the father, even as they buried Franck in a cemetery near town.

His widow, who still works in the family store, said her husband had treated her and their daughter with kindness. Still, she wants her father-in-law acquitted, her attorney said. “She hopes that this case will call attention to the problem of drugs in France,” said Annick Kechichian, the attorney. All Dominique would tell reporters was that the whole affair “has been horrible.”


The people here sided with the family out of esteem for the TV store owner, but also out of concern for bad publicity. Trets is, like all towns, concerned about its civic image. And it didn’t want to become known as the scene of family violence. By blaming drugs, the residents figured, even homicide could be forgiven.

“Franck’s father is a victim too,” Coquillat explained. “He doesn’t need to go to prison to be punished. He’ll be imprisoned by his heart for the rest of his life.”

After two weeks in jail, Andre Verlaque was released pending a charge of voluntary homicide. The maximum sentence is 30 years.

“It will be a long time before we again resume a normal life,” he said as he left jail. “It will be a long time before we forget what happened.”

But, he added, “If I have one message for parents in the same situation, it is that they should try, at all costs, to make peace with their child before something like this happens.”

While Andre welcomed the petition drive, he was worried about the publicity, and he urged his attorney to be discreet. “He doesn’t want the press to take up his case because he knows that killing your son is something terrible,” said Lyons, the lawyer. “It’s not like buying a baguette.”


“This was a murder, of course, but there also was the love for a son,” she added. “We all know that often parents are the last people who can help a drug-addicted child.”

In their search for places to put the blame, Trets residents settled on drugs, which they believe turned a wayward youth into a dangerous threat and a father, however briefly, into a killer. And it was easy for many here to picture themselves in Andre Verlaque’s shoes.

“He had run out of options,” one resident said. “He could no longer communicate with his son. And his son was no longer receptive to the heartfelt love of his parents.”