Yasser Louati didn’t usually permit his English students to leave class to make phone calls. On this January day in 2015, however, one asked with such urgency in her eyes that he nodded at her request and let her leave. A few minutes later, the woman walked back into the class, looking just as upset as she did when she left. As she took her seat, Yasser asked her if anything was wrong.
“There’s a been a shooting at the Hypercacher,” she said quietly, referring to the kosher supermarket chain located across the city in Paris’s 20th arrondissement.
Louati’s heart sank. All of Paris had been on edge for the past two days, following a shooting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The assailants were still on the loose and everyone was living in fear of more violence. But the location of this attack also had a personal resonance for Louati: The Hypercacher was just a few doors down from his 6-year-old son’s school.
Suppressing his own feelings of dread, Louati pushed through the final hour of class in a daze. As soon as it ended, he put on his jacket and rushed out the door, jumped on his motorbike and sped toward the 20th arrondissement. The normally bustling district was under siege by heavily armed police. Heart racing, Louati told a police officer he had come to collect his son from a nearby school. The officer said he could pass, but only on foot.
His son and the other students had taken refuge in the school basement and remained safe. Overcome with relief, Louati picked up his son and made his way through a sea of police back to his motorbike. Climbing onto the back seat, Louati’s son, who wanted to be a police officer, asked him what a terrorist was. “It’s a very evil and bad person,” Louati replied, strapping on his helmet.
The attacks and the ensuing climate of fear in Paris had set Louati on edge. Like other Parisians, he was afraid of the terrorists still on the loose in his city — the Hypercacher attack was still ongoing. But Louati also had other worries: He already felt a sense of foreboding about the backlash against French Muslims that was sure to come in the aftermath. As he often did in times of anxiety, Louati stopped by a mosque on the way home with his son to pray.
When he arrived, an imam was seated on the ground at the front of the mosque, with a few congregants before him. Everyone in the mosque knew that the spate of deadly attacks that had rocked the city had been conducted by other Muslims — extremists who claimed to be acting in the name of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State — and the city was still rife with heavily armed police. French public discourse was sure to be dominated in the coming days by questions that would bear directly on the congregants at the mosque — about Islam, terrorism, and whether people like them even belonged in the French Republic.
The imam, however, seemed oblivious. “So, what do people want to talk about?” the preacher asked those assembled. None of the dazed congregants replied. Pausing a moment, the imam continued, “OK, let’s talk about the correct way to make wudu” — the ritual ablution Muslims make before prayer.
Louati was shocked by what the imam just said. “People are being killed outside, in our city, in the name of Islam, and this is what you’re talking about?” he thought with incredulity. The disconnect between the reality of what was happening outside and the bubble inside was too much. He shot a sharp glance across the room, gathered up his son, and walked out the door.
When I met Louati recently at a restaurant in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, he had just returned from teaching the same English class he was teaching the night of the Hypercacher shooting. A former airline pilot who is now 39 years old, Louati was born and raised in Paris, the son of a Tunisian father who worked as an electrician and mother who was a seamstress. Tall, with close-cropped brown hair, trimmed beard, and a youthful appearance, he dresses carefully in a suit and tie to teach, business attire draped over the frame of the pilot he had spent years becoming.
In 2015, Louati had been briefly pushed into the spotlight. A wave of major terrorist attacks in France set off an international media fixation on a community — French Muslims — whose struggles and history had been of little interest to them before. At the time, Louati was working with Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a grassroots group focused on fighting discrimination. That November, extremists attacked the Stade de France and the Bataclan theatre, leaving 130 people dead and horrifying the country.
Louati gave an interview on CNN, his first appearance on television. The clip became notorious. The cable news hosts forthrightly blamed the French Muslim community as a whole for the attacks, demanding that Louati accept responsibility on air. To their visible frustration, he refused: “Sir, the Muslim community has nothing to do with these guys!” Louati said. “Nothing. We cannot justify ourselves for the actions of someone who claims to be Muslim.”
The interview captured a growing sentiment that French Muslims were not just a “problem,” but a possible fifth column inside the country.
While the French Republic does not compile statistics on race and religion, it is estimated that up to 10 percent of its population comes from Muslim backgrounds. France’s Muslims are mostly the descendants of the country’s former colonial territories: Algeria, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia, and Senegal. Long associated with stereotypes of social delinquency, poverty, and now extremism, French Muslims have been fighting a battle for equality in a manner similar to the U.S. civil rights movement long before the world began noticing them.
Louati’s life stands as a poignant example. As a teenager in Paris’s 94th department, the suburbs south of the city, he was awakened to politics at a young age. It was a sentiment that crystallized when Spike Lee released his biographical film about Malcolm X. “The anger I felt, and the hostility and racism that I experienced as a child, were all distilled in that film,” he recalled. “It was like I was run over by a train watching it. After the movie ended, I stood alone at the back of the theatre and cried. I couldn’t believe that a man gave up his life fighting for these things.”
“It’s because you feel French, and you are French, that you criticize France. If something is wrong in this house, I’m going to say it, because I belong here.”
Louati spent much of his life in the same city, trying to avoid the pitfalls of crime, delinquency, and drug use that plague many young men there. He did better than most, managing to get an education and train for a professional career that allowed him to travel and see something of the world outside the concrete blocks of Paris’s suburbs. Activism kept its pull on him, though, drawing him to a life of organizing that led him to give up the career he trained for.
The failures of modern France weigh on Louati. The country has become a “laboratory” for discriminatory laws targeting minorities, particularly Muslims, he says. But this isn’t the criticism of an outsider, let alone an ungrateful foreigner. “It’s because you feel French, and you are French, that you criticize France,” he said emphatically when we spoke. “If something is wrong in this house, I’m going to say it, because I belong here.”
I asked him what he would have said if people wanted to understand what led to the attacks in 2015. The shootings at the Hypercacher and Charlie Hebdo, as well as the attacks at the Bataclan, involved young men who were born and raised in the country. “When you have millions of people who are already marginalized, disenfranchised, and without community institutions that can give them answers, you create easy targets for extremists,” Louati responded. “The narrative of these groups is that France exploited and humiliated your parents, they destroyed the countries of your ancestry, and now they hate you, too. Do you want to keep trying to be like them, or do you want to take revenge?”
Over a thousand French citizens went abroad to join the militant group the Islamic State. While statistically, that’s a tiny fragment of France’s roughly 6 million Muslims, even a small number of young adults giving up their lives to join a genocidal terrorist organization should be cause for serious reflection.
“Daesh made a killing in the suburbs,” Louati said forthrightly of ISIS’s recruitment efforts in the outskirts of Paris, referring to the group’s Arabic acronym. “There’s no counternarrative to the extremists. If you want a solution, let French Muslims organize themselves and address the real issues that the terrorists are using to recruit.”
Over the course of the 19th century, France accumulated a vast colonial empire stretching across Asia and Africa. Its colonization efforts were most intense just across the Mediterranean. In 1830, the French military invaded Algeria, deposed the local Ottoman governor, and undertook a ruthless campaign to suppress a grassroots resistance movement. For more than a century, the North African country was governed as an extension of France itself. The local French colonists, known as “pied noir,” ruled Algeria as a racially privileged caste, analogous in some ways to Israeli settlers in the West Bank today. “Algérie Française” eventually came to an end in 1962, after colonial rule buckled under the pressure of a grueling revolutionary war. Over a million Algerians are believed to have been killed in the conflict.
During its time as an empire, France periodically brought young men from its colonies to provide cheap labor for its cities. In the decades following World War I, there was a particular need for manpower to rebuild industry and replace the huge numbers of working-age men killed in the fighting. Hundreds of thousands of North Africans took the opportunity to work in France, desperate to escape the grinding poverty of their colonized homelands. North African workers did the jobs that most French people balked at, laying railroad track, working in mines, and paving roads in the scorching heat. They led lives of loneliness and poverty, cut off from their families back home and crowded into tenements in the outskirts of major cities.
The meager wages the workers earned, however, were a godsend for the countries they left behind. By the time the Algerian revolution broke out, there were perhaps half a million Algerians living and working in France. In addition to building France’s industry and infrastructure, colonial soldiers from across Africa gave their lives in huge numbers to defend France in both world wars. During World War II, colonial soldiers comprised a majority of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French army, at a time when many native French people were collaborating with the Vichy regime. These sacrifices won little recognition from French society. The 1944 liberation of Paris was deliberately made a “whites only” affair.
Years of continued discrimination culminated in one of the most shocking incidents in French history. On October 17, 1961, thousands of French Arabs gathered in Paris to march in support of the Algerian independence movement. French police, under the control of Maurice Papon — a local prefect notorious for his collaboration with the Nazis during the Vichy regime — descended on the demonstrators. The police fired live ammunition into terrified crowds of unarmed protestors. Many were detained and then drowned by being thrown into the Seine. While the massacre was studiously ignored for decades in France, historians estimate that as many as 200 people were killed on that day.
In the shadow of these events, a generation of children were born in France who were the descendants of the country’s black and Arab colonial soldiers and laborers. Circumstances forced this generation to look inward: Their parents’ homelands were foreign to them, yet they found that they were not really accepted in France, either. A new wave of popular movements was born as they sought equality in the country in which they were born.
In 1983, discontent over labor discrimination, policy brutality, and a spate of hate crimes against Arabs and Africans led to the organization of the largest anti-racism protest in French history. More than 100,000 people participated in the March for Equality and Against Racism, moving by foot across hundreds of miles from Marseille to Paris. For the first time in France’s history, the country’s minorities were forcing the nation to pay attention. In a statement, the organizers said, ”We want to show that the French and immigrants can live together, in spite of their differences, in an integrated society.”
Abdelaziz Chaambi was one of the organizers of the March for Equality and Against Racism. Now in his late 50s, he has a heavy build and short graying hair and stubble. He immigrated to France from Tunisia as a 12-year-old. Chaambi dedicated his life to the cause of France’s minorities after his brother was murdered in a racist attack when they were both young. I spoke with Chaambi in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon marked by a stretch of concrete high-rises and industrial buildings. He carried himself with the unmistakable energy and determination of someone who had been organizing for decades. He periodically stopped to press stickers advertising CRI — Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia, an activist group he helped found — onto concrete pillars.
“For a long time, minorities in France wanted to assimilate their identities completely. People straightened their hair and wanted to look and dress the way that white French people did,” Chaambi told me, sitting in a sandwich shop near Lyon’s Perrache train station. “But over the years, they realized that whatever they did, they were only considered ‘bougnoule’ by the rest of society” — a racist term for North Africans and blacks.
The 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism began in Vénissieux, after the police shooting of a young man named Toumi Djaidja, who decided to organize the march from his hospital bed. Over three decades later, many of the same grievances that led to the march remain. Unemployment and poverty in Vénissieux are rampant, with up to a third of population living under the poverty line. Along with families and young people walking to school, drug dealers roam between stretches of apartment blocks.
In 2005, riots broke out in cities across France. The triggering event was the deaths of two boys who were killed after reportedly being chased by police officers in Paris. But their deaths were only the spark igniting the long-simmering anger of young “banlieusards” across the country. Decades of discrimination, alienation, and police violence had turned the suburbs into a tinderbox. In Vénissieux and other suburbs across France, young men burned cars and attacked police officers in scenes that were broadcast around the world.
Given the extent to which Islamic radicalism today has become a focus of security officials in France, it’s notable how little the riots in 2005 had to do with religion. Though the anger of the demonstrations intensified after the reported teargassing of a mosque by police, the riots themselves were a generic expression of pure rage and despair. For people like Chaambi who have been watching and warning about conditions for years, they did not come as a surprise.
“In France, there isn’t a door for young people born here to integrate into society,” he told me. “The riots in 2005 were about the frustration of people who have lived their whole lives without equal rights, dignity, access to jobs or proper housing. They were a warning sign to the rest of society that things were getting unbearable for people in the suburbs.”
“Over the years, they realized that whatever they did, they were only considered ‘bougnoule’ by the rest of society.”
Over the past year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to create a “French Islam” that is structured and controlled under the guidance of the state. Not a single person I met in France thought that this was a good idea; most tended to view the plan as either a patronizing intrusion into their personal lives or a surreptitious expansion of the police state. Without popular support, it’s hard to see how such a plan could ever be implemented.
While I was around Vénissieux with Chaambi, he made a point of letting me know how much he identifies the cause of France’s Arabs and Africans with the civil rights struggle of black Americans. (He boasted of meeting former Black Panther activist Angela Davis during a visit to Paris.) His years of activism are a living monument to the longevity of France’s own civil rights struggle.
“There was a black president in America, but people are still fighting against discrimination, police violence, and white supremacy. We are fighting against the same things here, and we feel very close to the struggle of black people in America,” Chaambi said as we drove out of Vénissieux. As we passed, rows of families and young children in backpacks wound their way through corroded apartment buildings and old shopping plazas.
“In France, there are some people who feel like they’re superior and we’re inferior, therefore their job is to ‘civilize’ us,” he said. “We don’t accept this, and the young people especially don’t appreciate this kind of attitude toward them. What they need is hope for a better life, but also to be recognized, acknowledged, and respected in French society for who they are, not what someone else wants to force them to be.”
A half-hour train ride north from the opulence of central Paris, the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis — the 93rd district, or the “neuf trois,” as it’s known colloquially — is the poorest district in France. The area includes the neighborhood of Saint-Denis. Aside from attending matches at Paris’s Stade de France, which is seated near the district, most people in the city seem to avoid Saint-Denis. When I asked Louati and a few other non-locals to give me a ride there, they repeatedly demurred. Eventually, I took the RER train — a commuter rail — to head out on my own.
On the main streets of the district and around the central train station, smoke wafted from skewers of meat being grilled by young men over shopping carts. Blankets laid out on the sidewalks displayed hats, scarves, and cellphone accessories for sale. The clothing stories, bakeries, butcher shops, and restaurants stretched out across the city center buzzed with activity. Along the riverbank, a memorial plaque honored the victims of the 1961 massacre — a monument to a tragedy that occurred some miles away, in central Paris.
For a brief moment in 2015, Saint-Denis seemed like it had become the gateway connecting Europe to the violence then roiling Iraq and Syria. As coordinated attacks struck central Paris, a separate group of attackers set out to target the Stade de France, the massive circular football stadium located in Saint-Denis that plays host to major international matches. The would-be assailants had their eye on a friendly football match between France and Germany. Among the thousands in attendance was then-French President François Hollande. The three suicide bombers, however, failed to execute their plan as intended. Their vests detonated before they could penetrate the massive crowds. One innocent bystander outside the stadium was killed — a 63-year-old chauffeur who had been dropping off spectators running late to the match.
Over the next few days, France continued to reel from the series of rapid-fire attacks and attempted plots. Hundred had been killed and wounded. A massive dragnet swept over the country to find the plotters. Five days later, a massive police operation focused in on a residence in central Saint-Denis. Three militants had hidden out in a small, tan-colored apartment building sitting above a cellphone store on a busy pedestrian street. Police flooded the area, and a massive standoff ensued. Over the next few hours, central Saint-Denis was a war zone. Over 5,000 bullets were fired by police, in an attempt to flush out or kill the attackers.
After several hours, the siege came to an end when one of the suspects detonated a suicide vest. Three people were found dead inside, including the attack’s mastermind, Belgian-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, and his cousin Hasna Ait Boulahcen, 26.
The building on the Rue du Corbillon where the fatal standoff took place is boarded up and abandoned today. The other tenants inside, as well as the shops below, were evicted following the raid and have yet to return. Covered in graffiti — some of which protests the lack of compensation for the evictees — the building is not out of sight on some quiet residential street. Instead, it stands out like a scar in the middle of one of the district’s busiest shopping streets. Pedestrians mill around the bombed-out structure, chatting and shopping. On a Saturday morning, panhandlers selling purses and jackets laid out their merchandise outside its boarded-up windows.
The attackers killed in the building were not from Saint-Denis, but rather had rented an apartment there from an unwitting landlord to use as a hideout. Nonetheless, the area has taken on a reputation as a den of extremism.
For Sihame Assbague, Saint-Denis is just home. She was born in France to a family from Morocco and grew up in and around Paris. Several years ago, she moved to Saint-Denis. When I met her in the district on a Saturday morning, the streets were packed with people shopping and drinking coffee in cheap cafes. The ornate ancient gothic cathedral, bearing the name of the district, towered over the area, though inside it was mostly empty. On a side alley, a small mosque — just a few houses and trailers merged into a single structure — was packed with congregants and children attending weekend Arabic classes.
In Assbague’s telling, the despair of the young, mostly Arab and African residents of the area is most often expressed in the self-destructive behaviors of drugs, street violence, and delinquency.
“When people get to a certain age, and it dawns that there’s no opportunity for them, it’s a turning point.”
“When people get to a certain age, and it dawns that there’s no opportunity for them, it’s a turning point,” she said. “There is a difference between what they thought their life was going to be like and what the reality is that becomes very hard to accept.”
Like many people from the area, Assbague is frustrated with the international’s media fixation on Islam, which she says makes invisible the social pathologies that tend to lead people into crime or extremism.
“If you look at the profiles of the people who were involved in the attacks, they were not even practicing religion,” she said, referring to French media reports about the terrorists’ apparently lax religious practices. “They were drinking, going to nightclubs. For people like this, who are angry in general, religion is a marker of identity. Muslims are killed when terrorist attacks happen too. They’re scared of being hurt when they go out, just like anyone else. The first woman who was killed by the terrorist in Nice was wearing a headscarf.”
The physical distance between Seine-Saint-Denis and central Paris is just a short train ride. But the subtle psychological barriers — as well as the effect of policing on young people in the area — are huge. A kind of apartheid separates lavish central Paris from the great poverty that is so close by.
In March 2017, Mamadou Camara, then 18 years old, was returning from a school trip to Brussels with his class. Pulling into Paris’s Gare du Nord station, he and two other boys, both African and Arab, were taken aside from their class and searched. They were frisked and made to open their luggage in full view of everyone in the packed station, over the protestations of their teacher. Camara lives in the neighborhood of Épinay, just west of central Saint-Denis, where random encounters like this with police are a daily fact of life. But to be humiliated even on a class trip in the middle of Paris was too much. With the help of their teacher, he and the other two boys filed a lawsuit for racial profiling.
Camara is tall and lanky, his short hair neatly trimmed into a geometric design. He has golden ear piercings and was wearing a tracksuit when we met in a library at Épinay. Outside, groups of men smoked cigarettes and drank coffee on a Friday morning. Soldiers armed with assault rifles also milled around the neighborhood, while sirens could be heard in the distance. Camara grew up around this area. He was shy when we first met, but opened up and became more animated as he described what life is like in the area.
“I’m used to being stopped and searched, but not in front of my class in the middle of the city,” Camara said. “That was too much.”
Camara was born in Mali but left with his family for France when he was 1 year old. He grew up in Saint-Denis, though for years his family sent him to a school outside the district in hopes that the quality of education would be better. When getting to school became too difficult, he started attending one of the high schools in the area. After he and the other two boys filed the lawsuit with the help of their teacher, the police in Épinay tended to leave him alone a bit more.
“I’m used to being profiled, because I grew up with it. But I don’t want my brothers to have to have the same experience,” he added, referring to his two younger brothers, both adolescents. “I really like France, actually — it’s my home and I feel at home. There’s some racism, but the thing I really like about this country in the first place is that there are so many different people living here together. We just need to stand up for our rights, and things will be OK.”
In mid-2015, a police official working at the Orly Airport south of Paris invited Ismail Difallah for a coffee in the main terminal. For over a decade, Difallah, who was born in France to Algerian parents, had worked at the airport in various roles, most recently in security. Over six feet in height, he is built like a security guard — tall and thickset — yet he is also gregarious and frequently sports the sort of smile that can be disarming.
On the day they met, the police official had an offer for him. “After making some small talk, he asked me if I would ‘work’ for them in the airport,” Difallah told me when I met him.
The police official was inviting Difallah to become an informant for the government — something that happens to huge numbers of Muslim men in Europe and the United States. The job, such that it is, wasn’t always so difficult. In most cases, it entailed meeting with a handler periodically and giving them information about people in one’s network. In some extreme cases, it could involve working on entrapment cases and stings of people that the authorities target.
Difallah quietly let the officer know that he wasn’t interested. “I told them I already have a job, so I’m fine,” Difallah said.
He went back to work, though for a while the conversation left a bad taste in his mouth. Within a few weeks, however, he had largely forgotten it. The next time the conversation popped into his head was at the end of the year, when Difallah needed to get his security clearance renewed to continue working at the airport. He applied, as he had done routinely for more than a decade. This time, however, things didn’t work out.
“They told me that we can’t give you the clearance now,” Difallah told me at a home in the suburbs, not far from the airport. “I asked them why, and they just said they didn’t have any information for me.”
His mind started racing, trying to think back to figure out why he was suddenly being rejected. The only thing that sprang to mind was the conversation with the officer, but he had no way of finding out if that was the real reason for his denial. A denunciation to the local prefect, by a police officer or even another citizen, could be enough to land him on a secret list, like the notorious S-File, that would make him ineligible for a clearance. As many was 20,000 people are believed to be in the S-File database, which can lead to surveillance, prevention of travel, or difficulties getting work.
Suddenly, deprived of the ability to work with no explanation, Difallah’s life was thrown into turmoil. He got a lawyer in an attempt find out what information the state may have used to have his clearance pulled. Due to the opaque nature of France’s system of secret evidence and security listings, however, his legal efforts found no success. Difallah has still not gotten his job back. For now, he is working as a private bus driver to make ends meet. “I’m just tired,” he told me, resignation in his voice. “Honestly, I am tired.”
One of the quirks of liberal democracies is that, during periods of crisis, they have the ability take on the attributes of authoritarian states. In its effort to confront terrorists after 2015, this is what the French government has done. Immediately after the attacks, France instituted a nationwide state of emergency. The measure allowed security forces to conduct warrantless raids, shut down private institutions, and restrict the movements of targeted people.
While drastic measures were widely seen as necessary to roll up the extremist networks responsible for the wave of attacks, it soon became clear that the dragnet was catching far more than just terrorism suspects. By mid-2016, nearly 3,600 warrantless raids had been carried out across the country. Only six resulted in terrorism charges.
Macron campaigned on a pledge to end the state of emergency. The promise was kept, but only by a sleight of hand. Although the state of emergency was lifted in 2017, its most draconian measures were institutionalized into a new anti-terrorism law called Strengthening Homeland Security and the Fight Against Terrorism. The state of emergency is now permanent.
In an office just off central Paris’s opulent Place de la Concorde, a human rights attorney named Emanuel Daoud is fighting a lonely battle to push back against France’s creeping authoritarianism. Daoud’s office — adorned with upbeat modern art, in juxtaposition to the subject matter of his cases — sees a steady stream of petitioners who have found themselves caught in the dragnet of France’s counterterrorism policies. The volume of casework is such that the office buzzes with activity, even late into the night.
When I visited his office, Daoud told me that the use of secret evidence, blacklists, and denunciations have gradually built an atmosphere of fear in the suburbs and beyond. He singled out the S-File. “The maintenance of secret lists like the S-File — created in part through the use of private denunciations — is taken from the practice of the Vichy regime in World War II, though the consequences of being placed on such a list are ultimately different,” he told me. “There is a general climate of fear and paranoia being created by these measures that is expanding beyond just minority groups living in the suburbs.”
In a meeting with a former high-level French intelligence official, Daoud was told that the state of emergency had only been useful as a counterterrorism tool for a few weeks after the 2015 attacks. After the perpetrators and their network had been rolled up, the draconian measures mostly stayed in place for political reasons.
As Daoud sees it, there is an inexorable shift toward less freedom in France. This is signified in part by the shift in oversight of civil liberties from the judiciary toward the executive, or as the French call it, the administrative. What this means in practice is that local prefects, like the one that denied Difallah his security clearance without explanation, will gain more power to put people on lists or deny them their rights without legal challenges. This dynamic is likely to continue, even if no more attacks happen. If there is more terrorism, Daoud warns of a wider possible breakdown in social cohesion.
“After November 2015, people feared and expected that there would be physical attacks against Muslims and their institutions,” Daoud said. “For the most part, that didn’t happen, and the far-right activists who tried to engage in attacks were intercepted by security forces. This was positive. But it’s an increasingly fragile balance, however, and it’s in danger of breaking.”
“Yes, I’m Muslim, but I’m French, and I feel tired of trying and failing to prove this.”
A situation like this is particularly claustrophobic for people like Difallah. Trapped between an insidiously expanding security state and the multiple threats posed to French Muslims by terrorism, he has no other place to turn if France becomes unwelcoming. Despite losing almost everything in his personal life over the past three years since his clearance was denied, like most other people I met, he said he found it cathartic to be able tell his story. He tried to explain how the targeting by the police over a lifetime, culminating in the loss of his job, has made him feel like an outsider in the city where he was born.
“I’m 38 years old; I don’t know the country of my parents. I’ve been to Algeria maybe one month in six years,” he said. “Yes, I’m Muslim, but I’m French, and I feel tired of trying and failing to prove this.”
In 2015, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq released a book called “Submission.” The novel depicted a near future in which France is ruled by an Islamist government, which comes to power at the head of a coalition created during the 2022 elections. In Houellebecq’s satirical alternate history, an exhausted France eventually decides to lay down in the face of its supposedly virile and determined Muslims. The new French president is a suave intellectual with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood who quietly begins a program of socially re-engineering the country and reorienting it toward the Middle East. Meanwhile, the suburbs become the site of violent gun battles between right-wing activists and young Arab and African youths, which the French media expeditiously choose to ignore.
Louati didn’t like the book.
“France owes people like us its freedom. These kids you see around, Africans and Arabs, whether people like it or not, they’re French.”
“French elites have always had fantasies about civil war and purging people of ‘impure blood’ from the country,” he told me one evening at a mall in the southern Paris suburb of Thiais. On a Sunday night, the mall food court was bustling, mostly with young people and families of Arab and African background. A French rap song pumped out of an Adidas store full of shoppers. “When you are Muslim and French, society pushes these two identities to collide,” Louati told me. “Islam isn’t considered a normal religion of France the way that Catholicism, Protestantism, or Judaism are – even though many of our grandparents were fighting the Nazis to free this country while others were collaborating with Vichy.”
By morbid coincidence, Houellebecq’s novel was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015. Those killings marked the start of a cycle of terrorist attacks and government reprisals that began to crystallize a certain image of Muslims as a security threat — or even a fifth column within the French Republic. To say this view is blinkered would be an understatement.
“In the public imagination, the image of a French Muslim remains the disenfranchised youth of suburbs,” said Olivier Roy, a French political scientist and specialist on political Islam. “The reality is that over the past generation, they’ve seen the creation of an educated middle class and professional class, which, due to lack of representation, is mostly ignored. There’s a discrepancy between the public perception and sociological reality. In a sense, it’s normal for the extreme right in France to use cliches about Muslims, but the problem is the clichés are also used by the left, too.”
In France, it’s common to see tributes to African-American freedom fighters like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Due to the country’s revolutionary history, the French have a love of egalitarianism that often draws it into competition with the United States. Until France can learn to fulfill the rights of its own minorities — whose efforts helped build the modern nation and who, for the past several decades, have waged a civil rights struggle of their own — its troubles are not going to reach a conclusion.
“France owes people like us its freedom,” said Yasser Louati, passion in his voice as he packed up his belongings. The bistro, Belle-Epine, was set to close. “These kids you see around, Africans and Arabs, whether people like it or not, they’re French. We’re not foreigners or guests who are going to accept being treated as though we’re just lucky to be here. Maybe some of the elites of France don’t like us. But they’re going to have to respect us.”
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