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How a City in France Became a Mecca for Islamists

A visit to Roubaix, home of alleged Jewish Museum killer Mehdi Nemmouche. Second of a five-part series on anti-Semitism in France.

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French National Police Intervention Group arrest a suspected radical Islamist group member in Roubaix, April 2012. (Photoillustration byErik Mace for Tablet Magazine. Original photo: DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images.)
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This is the second of a five-part series, France’s Toxic Hate. Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.

***

Once upon a time, in the extreme north of France, a few steps away from the Belgian border, the town of Roubaix was called “the city of the thousand chimneys” in reference to the many textile factories that gave it its distinctive shape and energy. Eager to work, ready to fight—“The mecca of socialism” was its other nickname; the town remained a bastion of the left from the mid-19th century to the last municipal elections—workers from all over Europe would populate the red-brick streets of its neighborhoods and the many guinguettes for which the town was otherwise known. Today, as the broken, dirty streets that I visited last week indicate, Roubaix is devastated by a 40-percent unemployment rate. It maintains an astonishing crime rate of 84 incidents per 1,000 inhabitants and is classified by the government as the largest “high-priority security zone” in the country. This is where Mehdi Nemouche, the alleged Brussels Jewish museum killer, was born and partly raised.

Place Faidherbe is a double row of unkempt windows and crooked walls supporting the two-story houses of the miserable neighborhood of Le Pile. On the other side of the street, in front of a tepid grocery store—and an empty storefront that was once a Muslim tea room and is now just a ghostly window blind shop—stand three grayish off-white trailers in a semi-circle. From one of the trailers, a heavyset blonde woman sells sandwiches and lukewarm beers to two middle-aged men, who then sit on a stone bench to eat and drink and watch the slow traffic of passing cars. A young Arabic man appearing at my side and crossing the street calls the two men “bums” as he passes. “What are these bums doing here?” he says aloud for no one in particular. The bums in question are the only Caucasian people in sight. Around them, women of all ages go about their business, wearing, all of them, the heavy dark cotton dresses and the black scarf of observant Salafists.

France's Toxic Hate

Behind me is La Condition Publique—the Public Condition, the one trendy restaurant/art gallery of Le Pile—the name is a play on the time when wool was conditioned between the thick red brick walls of the ruined factory where the restaurant makes its home. The establishment also houses the Abu Bakr mosque, one of the largest Muslim buildings in Roubaix. Predictably enough, there’s a conflict going on between the two neighbors, and it’s not clear whether or how long the wine-seller is likely to be around. Four years ago, in the brand-new mall of the nearby urban business zone where clothing stores sell major French brands at discounted prices, a similar fight erupted when the Quick Burger fast-food restaurant went exclusively halal, and the socialist mayor René Vandierendonck, who for years had encouraged what he called the “cultural diversity” of Roubaix, felt obliged to go against the Muslims, in the name of the non-discriminatory politics he had previously argued for: An exclusively halal fast-food restaurant, he believed, would de facto discriminate against the rest of the regular customers, secular and otherwise, and therefore should not be allowed in a public commercial center.

Unsurprisingly, he hit a wall. That wall took the shape of a “Committee of the Mosques”—a lobby set up for the occasion, gathering five of the six mosques of the city. According to political researcher Gilles Kepel, the structure of that committee was openly inspired by the one of the same name that had burned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989 in Bradford, England—a town with which, incidentally, Roubaix is, to this day, officially twinned. So, the mayor got scared, stepped back, withdrew his complaint, and ended up celebrating the end of Ramadan in the Quick halal fast-food restaurant along with the distinguished members of the committee that he had intended to overcome.

In between, the polemics in Roubaix became so fierce as to attract national attention. From Paris, Marine Le Pen stepped in, denouncing in the “Quick Burger case” of Roubaix an example of what she called “the forced Islamisation of France.” A socialist mayor defended by the leader of the extreme right-wing party was certainly a new moment in the politics of cultural diversity, and Le Pen’s National Front won a few more points in the polls, as a result. (Today, a “compromise” has been reached: The Quick Restaurant remains exclusively halal, but it doesn’t publicize that fact to avoid alienating non-Muslim customers. As for what fate is in store for La Condition Publique, nobody knows.)

One could argue, somewhat sarcastically, that what had started in England at the end of the 20th century with the Rushdie case as a serious issue involving blasphemy and the freedom of literary imagination was followed in France in 2010 by the stupid question of what kind of meat bad hamburgers should be made of. Was Islam looking bad or was France demonstrating, one more time, its neurotic sensitivity to identity issues? It was perhaps with the latter question in mind—or with an all too certain answer to it—that Alissa Rubin of the New York Times came here one year ago to report—and managed to spectacularly miss what was going on in the city.

“When you look at the demographics, in two or three generations, all of France will be like Roubaix,” Bertrand Moreau, the chief spokesman for the mayor’s office at the time, told Rubin. To judge from her article, titled, “A French Town Bridges the Gap Between Muslims and Non-Muslims,” she was more than convinced. “Roubaix’s multicultural approach,” she enthusiastically wrote, has “diminished the ethnic and sectarian tensions that have afflicted other parts of France.” It has “blurred the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Today, she wrote, “the city stands out for its efforts to take discreet but pointed steps to promote an active Muslim community.” Yet a look at the streets of Roubaix shows very little blurring of differences: Rather, it shows the elimination of nearly all cultural signifiers and actual people who are not Muslims. The last synagogue was destroyed here in 2000, and since then a Jewish presence in Roubaix, once the capital of the global shmata business, is unheard of.

Anti-Jewish prejudices, on the other hand, are alive and well in Roubaix. According to the French historian and researcher Michel Wieviorka, whose 2005 book La Tentation anti-Semite (The Anti-Semitic Temptation) presents the result of an investigation he conducted with the young Roubaisiens of Arabic/Muslim background, found that a majority—like, in fact, the majority of that same religious-ethnic and age group in the country at large—sees Jews, Israelis, and Americans as virtually of the same hateful species: They want to control the media, they support Israel, they make war, they discriminate against Arabs—and, more generally, are behind “the global order,” in which the inhabitants of Roubaix are very definitely the losers. (“Jews control everything in the French government” as Sarah, a Parisian young woman interviewed in the recent anti-Israel demonstrations in Paris put it bluntly to a reporter.)

***

In the early 1980s, as an idealistic and not-so-confident aspiring young writer, I found a job in a counter-cultural magazine called Sans Frontière. Without Borders, its name in English, was a twice-monthly journal defending non-discriminatory policies for migrant workers and dedicated itself to fighting racism. Its managing team was mostly composed of left-wing political refugees from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, and its only two French-born journalists were, significantly, Jews—a Sephardic girl and me.

Sans Frontière was the first publication in France to investigate the rising situation in what was not known yet as the “Cités”—those high-rise blocks built in the ’60s and early ’70s in the French suburbs for a middle class that was actually leaving them. The high-rises turned out to be a magnet for migrant workers, who for decades had been confined in tiny rooms of miserable hostels, in forced celibacy—and were now beginning to settle in France for good with their wives and children, thanks to a new law of “familial reunification.” What those children wanted, who they were, if they even existed—no one knew or cared. The political right never did, and the left, led by François Mitterrand, had just come to power in a campaign based on the mythic appeal of the memory of Leon Blum and the Popular Front, and was ill-prepared to deal with such a population. As a result, everybody looked away. Except, of course, the National Front, whose rise was just beginning—and racist French cops, who were shooting these children down at a scary, regular rate. Some 40 kids were thus killed in the suburbs, and in broad daylight, either from windows or in police custody, between 1981 and 1983.

That same year, with the help of a Catholic Worker priest, Sans Frontière set up what would come to be known in French political parlance as La Marche des Beurs, or The Arab March (beur being slang in French for Arab): Thousands of youngsters from migrant backgrounds, of both sexes, walking across France end to end, asking for social equality and assimilation.

In Roubaix, although we never met at the time, Slimane Tir, then 27, was leading the way. “It was an ecstatic moment,” he recalls, his eyes shining at the memory. “The victory of an ideal of republican equality! Equal at last! At last we had a voice! We were citizens!”

But what I want to know is what happened since then. Today a gray-haired mustachioed little man of 61, and actually looking pretty much like his father who left Kabylie in 1956 to come and work in a textile factory, Slimane Tir stands at City Hall as municipal adviser elected from the Green party. Is it true, I ask him, that he is not just Green, but “Green Green” as Marine Le Pen saysthat is, half-ecologist, and half the Trojan horse of the Islamists inside the left? Is it true, I ask, that his brother-in-law Ali Rahini works with Tariq Ramadan?

“I talk to you about citizenship, and you answer with my brother in law!” he answers with a broad, if slightly forced smile. “You have to take into account what happened everywhere after the Arab March. I was very much involved in local actions here. In the neighborhood called l’Alma-Gare we were trying to create alternate multicultural social structures. But we were not listened to by the politicians. The socialists had been afraid of the Arab March and did all they could to kill everything that was emanating from it. And politicians at large, they put in place all the conditions for the integration movement to die. Did they fill the gap with anything? No. Migrants were left alone. Meanwhile, the Muslims had only caves to pray in—no mosque, and it was very humiliating. And from Algeria, the Islamists were implanting networks. And in France lots of mayors are buying social peace with the imams without any regard for who they were. So, I felt I had to do something. I had to help the Muslims against the Islamists.” Even if it meant bringing in Ramadan? “Why not?” he answers. “He’s a Muslim philosopher.”

‘I felt I had to do something. I had to help the Muslims against the Islamists.’

Here are a few things Slimante Tir does not say: It is in the early 1960s that the demographics in Roubaix started to change—when most migrant workers in Roubaix began to come from Algeria, and a good deal of them were harkis—those Algerians who fought with the French during the war of independence and came to France afterward only to be locked up in camps and fiercely humiliated by racism, for decades considered as traitors by their fellow citizens. Since then, what happens in Algeria has a direct impact in Roubaix. In 1992, Roubaix saw the first big rally in France in support of the Islamic Salvation Front, ISF, one of the main military organizations fighting the civil war that was raging at the time in Algier. (According to Gilles Kepel, Roubaix’s proximity with Belgium was making the city an easy spot for transferring weapons and money to the ISF.) The same year, on rue Archimède, in l’Alma-Gare—the very neighborhood where Slimane Tir had dreamed of building a leftist commune—the al-Dawa mosque was built. The mosque reportedly had strong ties to the ISF and sent people to fight for the “Islamic cause” not only in Algier, but in Bosnia as well.

The al-Dawa mosque was especially active in converting the Ch’ti—as we call the local French people of the north. In 1994, the same way Muhammed Merah, the Toulouse killer, would fly to Pakistan seven years later, or Nemmouche flew to Syria nine years later, two recently converted youths from Roubaix, Christophe Caze and Lionel Dumont, flew to the Balkans to fight with the Mujahadeen international brigades affiliated then to Osama Bin Laden. Back in Roubaix, in 1996, Caze and Dumont became famous as the main members of le gang de Roubaix—an organization of 10 people that they had set up and that in the winter of that year began robbing banks with the goal of using the loot to finance jihad. On March 28, 1996, the police attacked the gang hideout in L’Alma-Gare and in the ensuing shoot-out, four gang members died. Most of the others went to jail except for Dumont, who escaped. (Dumont, who is said to have had his first contact with Islam as a peacekeeper in Somalia, while he was serving in the French army, was spotted in 2003, in Malaysia, where he’d joined Jemaah Islamiyah, the terror group responsible for the Bali bombing that caused 202 victims in October of the previous year. Dumont had married a Muslim woman—a German of Portuguese origin who was working in a tourist agency. Arrested in Munich the same year and extradited to France, he has been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison, where he remains despite repeated attempts to escape.)

It was also in Roubaix, in the mid-1990s that Tariq Ramadan began his international career—by giving conferences through two different associations aimed at youths, Le Collectif des Musulmans de France (The French Muslims Collective) and Rencontre et Dialogue (Dialogue and Encounter) the latter co-founded by Slimane Tir’s brother-in-law Ali Rahni, with subsidies from City Hall.

The rationale for this was that, if the al-Dawa mosque gained in influence among the Muslim population at large, Slimane Tir and his brother-in-law could offer City Hall an alternate to the ISF influence. They could also give to the specific harki population of Roubaix a less-Algerian-oriented version of Islam. (Ramadan is famously linked with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which his grandfather helped to create.) By becoming Muslims their own way, harkis would indeed get out of the caves and recover dignity. In effect, two versions of a Salafist Islam started to compete—with predictable results.

In 2004, Ali Rahni was forced to back down after he had invited as speaker Hassan Iquioussen, an Islamist predicator born in France from Moroccan background who had helped Ramadan to set up the French Muslims Collective and had just been caught saying this: “Jews are stingy. They live in ghettos like rats and respect nothing. They are the top of betrayal and felony. … After World War I, they became even meaner than before. What do they do in Europe? What I’ll tell you will shock you, but it’s the books that say it today, they’ll be together with Hitler, the Zionists. And for what? To push the Jews outside Germany!” And so on.

“But he apologized, didn’t he?” answers Slimane Tir about Ramadan, when I remind him of that story.

***

On May 30, the very day Mehdi Nemmouche was caught, far to the south in Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of the city of Lyon, the socialist Deputy Mayor for Sport, Ahmed Chekhab, 30, was secretly taped by the manager of a sporting association with whom he was in conflict. The recording ended up on the Internet: “You do that to me although I’m a Muslim like you?” Chekhab is heard saying. He goes on: “You prefer Zittoun? You prefer the Jew? That’s what you want, don’t you? That’s what you like! You don’t like it when people like you are in place and wanna help. You’d rather have the fucking bastard to fuck you hard! That’s what you want! You want the Jew to fuck you!” Since Ahmed Chekhab is a Socialist, the party was asked to take action, and a few days later, the “sanction” fell: Ahmed Chekhab was nominated as the head of a commission dedicated to fighting racism and anti-Semitism.

The same way the socialists probably genuinely believe they can teach Ahmed Chekhab a lesson (once at the head of a commission dedicated to fighting racism and anti-Semitism, he’s going to have to study! He’s going to have to take notes, and his views will change!), Roubaix’s authorities felt they could safely counter the ISF’s influence by supporting a different teaching—that of Tariq Ramadan. It seems safe to say that the result has not been the social peace that its supporters hoped for.

“Mehdi was a teenager when Islam began to be really important here,” Souleifa Badaoui, Nemmouche’s lawyer after he turned to delinquency, says to me. “You had initiation classes in public schools about Islam here, you had conferences on Islam in town halls and town gymnasiums. It was everywhere!”

Badaoui is a round, warm, energetic, woman in her late thirties who was raised, with her nine sisters, not far from what is now the Abou Bakr mosque. Some of the girls do Ramadan, others don’t, and all of them are now lawyers or social workers. We have lunch in the courtyard of her favorite hangout in Roubaix, a restaurant that specializes in delicious barbecue and grilled meat. With us is Leïla, Soulifa’s youngest sister, a beautiful young woman who just turned 23 and is doing her training course as a law practitioner. “I even see people I know, friends, people who studied with me and have diplomas and work,” Badaoui tells me, “and suddenly they turn to so-called Islam, and it’s over.” “What do you mean it’s over?” “Well, they lose their jobs, to begin with.” “How so?” “Because they just can’t work! Not in the state they’re in. With the beard, the djellabah, the refusal to talk to any woman, me included!” It is hard for me to imagine that in a city with a 40 percent unemployment rate people voluntarily leave their jobs over religion. But, she says, “it’s not really voluntarily, it’s more like a consequence they accept. They used to call Roubaix the Mecca of socialism, now it’s just Mecca. The Mecca of French Islam.”

‘They used to call Roubaix the Mecca of socialism, now it’s just Mecca. The Mecca of French Islam.’

After lunch I decide to stay alone in the courtyard under the sun to think of the dynamics of Muslim resentment toward the Jews. Is any of this relevant to explain Mehdi Nemmouche? Is anything? It may be that he found in 1990s Roubaix the serpent’s eggs to nurture his hatred—but still: When he was 3, the social services considered his depressive mother unfit for motherhood and placed him in a foster family, the Vasseurs, who raised him with three other adopted kids, in a little village away from Roubaix—an environment largely removed from the city’s Muslim turmoil. Sure, he would see his aunts now and then, he would go to school in Roubaix as a teenager, and at 17, he went to live with his harmless grandmother in the poor Roubaix neighborhood called La Bourgogne. How do you go from that to killing four people because they’re Jewish? What made him so porous to such a distant, erratic environment? What lit the first fire of hatred? How does individual anger get trapped into collective neuroses?

Should I take into account France’s relationship with its own past and its own history? Could Roubaix exist without the Algerian war—without the way the French colonials treated the Arabs, without the way Algerians treated themselves (Roubaix counts 300 killed in rivalries from the Algerian revolution), without the way the French treated the Harkis? Is the problem here Islam, only Islam, or is it France, and French irrational guilt?

Thierry, the white owner of the restaurant, comes to me as I reflect on all this. He wants to know what I write, what it is to be a writer, and he tells me about his restaurant, how he opened it two years ago, how he’s always been a man of the right, believing in free enterprise, and how taxes and socialist government policy kill him. (“There’s a dictatorship in this country, it’s the fourth Reich!” he says.) We speak of the Brussels killing, and the sin of “communitarianism” that he believes has befallen the country. “Because of the government, France is fractured now in various communities and they all hate each other,” he argues. And then he continues: “Listen to Manuel Valls, the interior minister. Google his last speech and you’ll see. You’ll hear. There’s a community he puts above the others. I won’t tell you more. But there’s a community that thinks they’re above all, they have protection. And it’s not going to end well.”

Back in Paris, I Googled the speech in question. It’s a speech made after the demonstrations last winter when anti-Semitic cries were heard in the streets for the first time since World War II. The group that the minister was trying to reassure was the Jews.

***

Part three of France’s Toxic Hate will appear next week, with a report from Toulouse.

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How a City in France Became a Mecca for Islamists

A visit to Roubaix, home of alleged Jewish Museum killer Mehdi Nemmouche. Second of a five-part series on anti-Semitism in France.