PARIS – The family of a French backpacker who went missing in Egypt nearly a year ago used the Egyptian president's visit to Paris on Friday to press for an investigation into the 27-year-old traveler's disappearance.
Family members and friends raised placards asking, “Where is Yann Bourdon, President Sissi?” — hoping to catch the eye of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi before his meeting with French President Emmaunel Macron. But French police scooped them up from a sidewalk and led them away for identity checks before el-Sissi's motorcade zoomed past.
Macron's office wouldn't say if the French leader spoke specifically about Bourdon to el-Sissi. But it said Macron raises individual cases in his dealings with the Egyptian president.
Bourdon’s family and friends haven’t heard from him since August 2021. His last email to his sister was casual, positive, like others the French graduate student sent on his yearlong backpacking journey. He wrote from Cairo: “I’ll get back to you soon. Give everyone a hug from me. Let me know how Grandpa’s doing.”
Nearly a year later, they’re desperate for news and any sign his disappearance is being investigated. Bourdon’s sister and mother said they decided to go public about the case after meeting months of silence or stonewalling from Egyptian authorities.
France’s Foreign Ministry says it’s well-versed in the dossier, and in touch with Egyptian authorities. The Egyptian Embassy in Paris didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry and a government media officer also did not respond to requests for comment.
Bourdon's mother, Isabel Leclercq, described her “great anguish and great fear that something is happening to him and we can’t help him.”
“It’s a total vacuum for us,” Wendy Bourdon, the missing man's sister, said.
The only clue so far came from a French police investigation into Yann’s bank account, according to his sister: It was emptied soon after his last email to his family, from a Cairo cash machine.
His mother describes Yann as “a very social boy” who studied history at the Sorbonne and spoke four languages. She said he left on his journey in July 2020 “because he wanted to meet other peoples, other civilizations."
Passionate about museums, reading and learning, he told his family about sharing a meal with Bedouins who let him pitch his tent next to theirs. “That really brought him pleasure,” his sister said.
He didn’t always have internet connections, but when he did he made contact via email. And he always sent messages for loved ones’ birthdays.
After arriving in Egypt, he messaged that “he stopped in a hostel in Cairo, and was picked up by a police officer while hitchhiking,” his sister said. “He said in his mail that he would go that day to visit the Cairo Museum, the Coptic quarter and the bazaar, and in the evening he would meet with the police officer and friends who picked him up.”
In his final message Aug. 4, “he said ‘I’ll get back to you soon.’ He did not have the intention to cut contact with us,’” his mother said.
When he missed his mom’s birthday in September, they worried but figured he was just without internet access. The family also didn't want to raise a false alert about his absence.
But when his sister’s birthday in November came and went without a word, they contacted the French Foreign Ministry, which contacted the French Embassy in Egypt, which in turn contacted Egyptian authorities. Back in Paris, the family filed an official missing person report.
At first, Egyptian officials claimed Yann Bourdon had never been in Egypt, frustrating and baffling the family.
But the French national police confirmed he had arrived in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt on July 25. They also discovered that his bank card was used at a cash machine near the Sadat subway station in Cairo to empty his account in four installments after his last email to his sister. The last withdrawal was made Aug. 7.
His family welcomed the information. “We thought, it’s good news. They have surveillance videos of the location. They know the specific time period to consult. We thought it would unblock the situation,” the sister said.
But they heard nothing.
The family traveled to Egypt in May and went with French consular officials to see the Giza prosecutor who was meant to be overseeing the investigation. He had no information about the case, the sister said.
“We suffered their questions for three hours. They asked us all the things that should have been in the dossier,” Leclercq said.
International rights groups have in recent years documented a growing number of forced disappearances by Egyptian authorities. Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's former longtime president, grew out of demands for an end to police brutality and extrajudicial practices.
Since el-Sissi ascended to power in 2014, most of the freedoms gained after the 2011 uprising have been revoked. The government has carried out a wide-reaching crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people and holding many of them without a trial.
The vast majority of those detained have been Egyptian citizens, with the exception of a handful of foreign journalists who have been either held or expelled from the country. Rights groups say the total number of people gone through forced disappearances by police remains unknown.
Bourdon’s sister says the French authorities were helpful and “very invested. But they aren’t getting information either.”
The family hopes that by calling attention to the case, other clues might emerge. Faced with deafening silence from the Egyptian authorities, Leclercq is certain her son did not cease communication with family and friends of his own will.
“If Yann can hear us, wherever he is, we want to tell him that we are looking for him, that we will never stop looking for him,” she said in an interview with the AP.
Choked with emotion, she added: “That we will find him. And that we will bring him back.”
AP journalists Masha Macpherson and Jade Le Deley contributed.
This version has been corrected to reflect that Bourdon was in touch with family via email only, not Whatsapp, and that the number of installments with which Bourdon’s account was emptied at a Cairo ATM machine was four, not three.