Political Science

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THE OTHER FRANCE Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism?

By George Packer

F ouad Ben Ahmed neverpaid much attention to Charlie Hebdo. He found the satirical magazine to be vulgar and not funny, and to him it seemed fixated on Islam, but he didn’t think that its contributors did real harm.

Although the alienated, impoverished immigrant communities outside Paris are increasingly prone to anti-Semitism, the profiles of French jihadists don’t track closely with class. Many of them have come from bourgeois families.

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One of its cartoonists, Stéphane Charbonnier, also drew for Le Petit Quotidien, a children’s paper to which Ben Ahmed subscribed for his two kids. On January 7th, upon hearing that two French brothers with Algerian names, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had executed twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices— including Charbonnier—in revenge for covers caricaturing Muhammad, Ben Ahmed wrote on Facebook, “My French heart bleeds, my Muslim soul weeps. Nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, can justify these barbaric acts. Don’t talk to me about media or politicians who would play such-and-such a game, because there’s no excuse for barbarism. #JeSuisCharlie.”

That night, Ben Ahmed left his house, in the suburbs outside Paris, and went into the city to join tens of thousands of people at a vigil. He is of Algerian and Tunisian descent, with dark skin, and a

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few white extremists spat threats at him, but Ben Ahmed ignored them—France was his country, too. On January 11th, he joined the one and a half million citizens who marched in unity from the Place de la République.

Ben Ahmed’s Facebook page became a forum for others, mostly French Muslims, to discuss the attacks. Many expressed simple grief and outrage; a few aired conspiracy theories, suggesting a plot to stigmatize Muslims. “Let the investigators shed light on this massacre,” Ben Ahmed advised. One woman wrote, “I fear for the Muslims of France. The narrow-minded or frightened are going to dig in their heels and make an amalgame”—conflate terrorists with all Muslims. Ben Ahmed agreed: “Our country is going to be more divided.” He defended his use of #JeSuisCharlie, arguing that critiques of Charlie’s content, however legitimate before the

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attack, had no place afterward. “If we have a debate on the editorial line, it’s like saying, ‘Yes—but,’ ” he later told me. “In these conditions, that is unthinkable.”

Ben Ahmed, who is thirty- nine, works as a liaison between residents and the local government in Bondy—a suburb, northeast of Paris, in an area called Department 93. For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier.

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Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation. The cités and their occupants are the subject of anxious and angry discussion in France. Two recent books by the eminent political scientist Gilles Kepel, “Banlieue de la République” and “Quatre-vingt-treize” (“Ninety-three”), are studies in industrial decline and growing segregation by group identity. There’s a French pejorative for that, too: communautarisme.

After the Charlie massacre— and after a third terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, gunned down a black policewoman outside a Jewish school and four Jews at a kosher supermarket—there was a widespread feeling, in France and elsewhere, that the killings were somehow related to the banlieues. But an exact connection is not easy to establish. Although these alienated communities are increasingly prone to anti-

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Semitism, the profiles of French jihadists don’t track closely with class; many have come from bourgeois families. The sense of exclusion in the banlieues is an acute problem that the republic has neglected for decades, but more jobs and better housing won’t put an end to French jihadism.

Ben Ahmed has lived in the 93 his entire life. A few years ago, he and his wife, Carolina, and their two children moved into a small house near Charles de Gaulle Airport. They wanted to be near a private school that the children attend, because most public schools in the 93 are overcrowded and chaotic, and staffed by younger, less qualified teachers. Ben Ahmed spent his teens in one of the toughest suburbs, Bobigny, in a notorious cité called l’Abreuvoir. During his twenties and early thirties, Ben Ahmed was employed by the Bobigny government as a community organizer, working

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“First, I’ll read the minutes from your last weddings.”

with troubled youth—some of them his friends and neighbors, many just out of prison or headed there. His authority on life in the cités exceeds that of any scholar.

After the attacks, Ben Ahmed wrote an open letter to President François Hollande titled “All Partly Responsible, but Not Guilty.” He identified himself as a banlieue resident who had often “seen death a few metres from me.” He wrote about the problems of joblessness, discrimination, and collective withdrawal from society. He recalled that, in October, 2001, a soccer game in Paris between France and Algeria—the first such match since Algerian independence, in 1962—had to be called off when thousands of French youths of North African origin booed the “Marseillaise” and invaded the field, some chanting, “Bin Laden, bin Laden!” The French public


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responded with righteous revulsion. “The problem was before our eyes,” Ben Ahmed wrote. “But instead of asking good questions, we chose stigmatization, refusal of the other.” He went on, “The split was born on that day, the feeling of rejection expressed by the political class, when we could have asked other questions: What’s wrong? What’s the problem?”

Ben Ahmed wears sharp dark suits, even on weekends, as if such formality were the only way for an Arab from the 93 to be taken seriously. When I met him, soon after the attacks, he told me, “In French, we say, ‘Clothes don’t make the monk’—but they do, unfortunately.” For the same reason, he always speaks proper French, not the accented slang of the banlieues. He shaves his head close, the black stubble of his hairline descending to a widow’s peak. He has a broad, boyish face and a disarming smile; as he

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shuttles around the 93, with quick, lock-kneed strides, he seems to know everyone by name. But as a youth in l’Abreuvoir he had to learn to fight—he trained at boxe française, a form of kickboxing —and his eyes can turn hooded and flat under stress. Two years ago, upon entering a cinema with his children, Ben Ahmed noticed that a patron was carrying a shotgun. (The man was out to settle scores with his wife and her lover.) Ben Ahmed told his children to lie down, stalked the gunman for thirty feet, then grabbed him from behind and took him to the floor in a Brazilian-jujitsu chokehold. After security guards arrived, Ben Ahmed escorted his children into a screening of “Man of Steel.”

Ben Ahmed had been nurturing political ambitions, and the incident made him a neighborhood hero. He decided to run for local office. “I have an ability to talk with

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everyone, because I respect the other,” he told me. “I think there’s always some good at the bottom of everyone.” Ben Ahmed’s wife and friends consider him a little naïve, but naïveté is almost a requirement for a banlieue Muslim entering French politics during a national-identity crisis.

he highway that encircles Paris is known as the

Périphérique. Entering or leaving the suburbs is often called “crossing the Périphérique,” as if it were a frontier. Banlieue residents joke that going into Paris requires a visa and a vaccination card. Mehdi Meklat, a young writer at Bondy Blog, which reports on the banlieues, told me, “There are two parallel worlds.” He called the dynamic between Paris and the suburbs “schizophrenic.”

The R.E.R., the rail network linking Paris to its suburbs, takes you from the Gare du Nord to Ben Ahmed’s station

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in just nineteen minutes. The trip begins in a tunnel, and when the train emerges the boulevards lined with bistro awnings are gone. Even the weather seems different— damp and murky, with a wind blowing from the southwest. (The suburbs of the 93 grew around factories that had been situated northeast of Paris in order to allow industrial smells to drift away from the City of Light.) The rail tracks cut through a disordered landscape of graffiti-covered walls, glass office buildings, soccer fields, trash fires, abandoned industrial lots, modest houses with red tile roofs, and clusters of twenty- story monoliths—the cités.

The banlieues are far more diverse than the ghettos of American cities. On the R.E.R., I saw a man speaking Tamil on his cell phone; an Asian woman watching her two boys; North African women in every variety of hijab, or in none; an elderly

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white man; a black man in a blazer reading the sports section; an Arab begging in the aisle with a child in his arms. Wealthy neighborhoods stand next door to poor ones, privately owned houses are interspersed with housing projects, and people of every color and religion shop in the commercial centers. In a dingy little restaurant in Montreuil, on an empty street near a cité, Arab men were served by a white waitress. The banlieues have housed generations of immigrants, and the older tide of Portuguese, Italians, and Poles hasn’t completely gone out with the more recent waves of Arabs, Africans, and Chinese. The suburbs are thought to remain majority white, though no one knows for sure because, in France, collecting statistics by ethnicity or religion is illegal. (A precise count isn’t necessary for the cités: they are overwhelmingly Arab and black.)

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Fouad Ben Ahmed, a lifelong banlieue resident, wrote of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, “My French heart bleeds, my Muslim soul weeps.”

For all their vitality, the banlieues feel isolated from the city, and from France itself. Parisians and tourists rarely visit them, and residents complain that journalists drop in only to report on car burnings and drug shootings. The suburb Clichy-sous-Bois —the scene, in 2005, of youth riots that spread across the country—has tried to raise revenue by offering a tour de banlieue for curious outsiders. Many suburban residents, meanwhile, never even think of going to Paris. Compared with American slums, the banlieues have relatively decent standards of housing and safety, but the psychological distance between the 93 and the Champs-Elysées can feel insuperable—much greater than that between the Bronx and Times Square. The apartment blocks in the cités, often arranged around a

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pharmacy, a convenience store, and a fast-food joint, look inward. Many have no street addresses, obvious points of entry, or places to park. The sense of separation is heightened by the names of the surrounding streets and schools, preserved from a historical France that has little connection to residents’ lives. The roads around Gros Saule —a drug-ridden cité where the police dare not enter—include Rue Henri Matisse and Rue Claude Debussy.

“It’s a social frontier,” Badroudine Abdallah, Mehdi Meklat’s colleague at Bondy Blog, said. “It’s not just about being black or Arab. It’s also about having relationships at your disposal, a network.” Meklat and Abdallah, who are in their twenties, told me about weeklong internships required of French ninth graders. Most of their classmates ended up in lousy little bakeries or pharmacies, or with nothing, because

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corporations wouldn’t answer queries from the children of immigrants in the 93.

Being from the banlieues is a serious impediment to employability, and nearly every resident I met had a story about discrimination. Fanta Ba, the daughter of Senegalese immigrants, has taken to sending out job applications using her middle name, France, and Frenchifying her last name to Bas, but she remains out of work. Whenever she hears of a terrorist attack in France, she prays, “Don’t let it be an Arab, a black, a Muslim.” On January 7th, she turned off the TV and avoided Facebook for two days. She couldn’t bear to rewatch the violent images or hear that all Muslims bore some responsibility. “To have to say, ‘I am Charlie’ or ‘I am a Muslim and I condemn this’— it’s too much,” she said. “It wasn’t me. I asked myself, ‘How will this end? Are they going to put crosses on the

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apartment doors of Muslims or Arabs?’ ”

Ben Ahmed has a friend from Bobigny named Brahim Aniba, an accountant who, like many banlieue residents, once endured a period of unemployment. To receive state benefits, he had to meet with a job counsellor. Aniba told me that the counsellor, wanting to help, said, “You don’t have an aunt who lives in Paris or somewhere else? Because Bobigny—really? Cité Grémillon?” This was the French equivalent of Shitsville. The counsellor advised, “If you have an address in Paris, a post-office box, just to receive mail, it’s better. And then the family name, Aniba—it’s O.K., but the first name, Brahim, use ‘B.’ ”

“Madame, why don’t I just drop my pants instead?” Aniba said.

Simply defining who is French can make small talk tricky.

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When people ask Widad Ketfi, a thirty-year-old journalist, where she’s from, she replies, “Bondy,” but that never ends the conversation. “Of what origin?” “French.” “Where are your parents from?” “France!” Even citizens of immigrant descent often identify whites with the term Français de souche—“French from the roots.” The implication is that people with darker skin are not fully French.

Fanta Ba said, “You do everything for France, to be accepted, but you feel you’re not welcome.” This is especially true for Muslims. In a poll taken by Le Monde after the attacks, a majority of respondents agreed that Islam is incompatible with French values. In a cité like Trappes, where Ba grew up, some Muslims have separated from French society: women are disappearing under the black abaya; men are dropping out of school to sell Islamic

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clothing online. Ba doesn’t cover her hair, but she has become more observant as she struggles with being jobless and alone. Withdrawal, she said, was often a reaction to exclusion.

In the 2012 elections, nine of the five hundred and seventy- seven seats in France’s National Assembly were won by nonwhite candidates—an increase of eight seats. France remains a caste society where social capital is king. It’s ruled by les énarques—graduates of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, in Strasbourg. According to Laurent Bouvet, a political scientist, an élite degree is the only guarantee of finding a good job in a country that’s mired in economic torpor. This is increasingly true in America, too, but the U.S. absorbs immigrants far more easily than France. What the two countries have in common —and what makes them unique—is a national identity

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based not just on history, blood, soil, and culture but on the idea of popular sovereignty. In France, this is called republicanism, and in theory the idea is universal. In practice, being part of the French republic has to do not just with democracy and secularism but also with what you wear, what you eat, and what you name your children.

In 2007, a national immigration museum opened in the Porte Dorée, an Art Deco palace in eastern Paris which was built for a colonial exposition in 1931. Tradition requires French Presidents to inaugurate national museums, but Nicolas Sarkozy, who had used immigration as a wedge issue in his election campaign, refused to attend. The Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration opened without official ceremony. (Last December, after seven years, Hollande, a Socialist, finally inaugurated it.) When I went to the museum, in February, there

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were few visitors, and many Parisians remain unaware of its existence.

That struck me as a missed opportunity, for the exhibitions tell a rich story, going back to the mid- nineteenth century, when France was receiving new immigrants while the rest of Europe was creating them. As recently as the nineteen- thirties, France had the world’s highest number of immigrants per capita. The museum’s placards offer historical reassurance: “The figure of the unassimilable foreigner accompanies every wave of immigrants. From the Italians at the end of the nineteenth century to the Africans of today, the stereotypes hardly change: immigrants are too numerous, carriers of disease, potential criminals, aliens in the body of the nation. This xenophobia, recurring in times of crisis, is often paired with anti-Semitism and fed by racism.”

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The least digestible aspect of France’s colonial past is Algeria. When Algeria was settled by Europeans, in the early nineteenth century, it became part of greater France, and remained so until 1962, when independence was achieved, after an eight-year war in which seven hundred thousand people died. It’s hard to overstate how heavily this intimate, sad history has been repressed. “The Battle of Algiers,” the filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s neo-realist masterpiece about insurgency, counterinsurgency, terrorism, and torture in Algiers, was banned in France for five years after its release, in 1966, and it remains taboo there. On October 17, 1961, during demonstrations by pro- independence Algerians in Paris and its suburbs, the French police killed some two hundred people, throwing many bodies off bridges into the Seine. It took forty years for France to acknowledge that this massacre had

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occurred, and the incident remains barely mentioned in schools. Young people in the banlieues told me that colonial history is cursorily taught, and literature from former colonies hardly read.

Andrew Hussey, a British scholar at the University of London School of Advanced Study in Paris, believes that the turmoil in the banlieues— periodic riots, car burnings, brawls with cops—is one more front in the long war between France and its Arabs, especially Algerians. The aim of the violence isn’t reform or revolution but revenge. “The kids in the banlieues live in this perpetual present of weed, girls, gangsters, Islam,” he said. “They have no sense of history, no sense of where they come from in North Africa, other than localized bits of Arabic that they don’t understand, bits of Islam that don’t really make sense.”

Hussey’s recent book, “The

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