Paris — This has long been a city of graffiti and of affiches, but of late the messages have been more poignant than is usual. Ambling between the central Place de la République and the Île de la Cité, on which Notre-Dame stands tall, I could not find a single block that lacked a tribute to those lost at Charlie Hebdo. In the windows of the boutiques, on narrow apartment doors, and even on the hundred-foot-tall drapes that hang from the château-esque Hôtel de Ville de Paris, the denizens of the third and fourth arrondissements have adopted a common identity. “Je suis Charlie,” the standard expression declares. Or, among the less narcissistic, “Nous sommes tous Charlie.” On the government buildings the identification is a touch more official: “Paris est Charlie,” proclaim the powers that be. “Charlie Hebdo: Citoyen d’honneur de la Ville de Paris.”
The Monument à la République — a vast tribute in bronze to France’s “Marianne” — has in recent days become a shrine. On its stone base, well-wishers leave their messages and their prayers, each pilgrim coming to register his solidarity in his own style. On the east side, amateur cartoonists have drawn the dead, and one contributor has appended “Killed in combat — for liberty” beneath the caricatures. “Laughter is a revolutionary act,” reads another inscription; “they didn’t have the right to kill you, Charlie.” On an iron support, a prominent offering sums up the theme: “12 dead,” it reads, “and 66 million injured.” A little girl with a pacifier in her mouth takes a broken felt-tipped pen from her anorak and jots down her own tribute. Her mother photographs her for posterity — that she might one day say, “I was there.”
As person after person approaches the shrine, it is easy to presume that, today, the French are genuinely as one. In this ritzy, resplendent quarter of their sumptuous capital city, perhaps they are. But to focus solely on this place would be to forget that there are in effect two distinct Parises — one a city of romance and of light; the other a sprawling, incoherent, and often precarious mess — and that they are separated by a stark line of demarcation. Tourists inquiring as to whether the city is safe in all areas are often told that they will remain unmolested if they stay within the Périphérique, the 20-mile-long ring road that encircles the city. Broadly speaking, they will be, for it is outside this barrier that almost all of Paris’s darknesses lie; out there, in les banlieues, where many fear to tread.
To the upmarket residents of Paris proper, les banlieues might feasibly mean a number of things at once. Literally translated, the word simply means suburbs, and it can be used correctly to describe any collection of houses and businesses that lie beyond the official city walls — including, that is, those areas in which the rich and connected choose to live. In practice, however, the word has come to carry with it a number of unpleasant connotations. In consequence, a Parisian who brings up the topic almost certainly means to talk not about the royal grandeur at Versailles, but about the crime-ridden, immigrant-heavy, and disproportionately Muslim purlieus of lore, in which unemployment has reached dangerous levels, assimilation is a pipe dream, and the government’s good-faith attempts to provide housing and welfare services have yielded a panoply of unintended — and often deleterious — consequences. “I am glad you are going there and not me,” a friend told me the night before. “That area is a disaster.”
In the car the next morning, I grasp quickly why he was so apprehensive about my trip. “When I lived there, ten to 15 years ago,” says Kadeen, one of my guides, “there was no garbage service, and you wouldn’t see the police unless somebody got shot.
“Since then,” he adds ominously, “the dangerous areas have only become wider as the wealthier people have moved out. Now, only people who don’t know where to live will go there.”
Before too long, the gruesome stories start to flow. “One of my friends was shot,” Kadeen recalls, casually. “He was in the drug business. One morning, a squad of men who had dressed to look like police — but weren’t — walked into his house and woke everybody up. They assembled the whole family, and then executed him in front of them. They hit his mother with a vase. They still don’t know who did it.”
As we drive, I learn that another friend died during a dispute over a thousand euros. “I know of about ten people who have been killed over trifles,” he reports. “Some people died because they owed money; some were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. One year ago, a North African motorcyclist fell off his bike and hurt himself. He asked a black gang for help. They said no. Later that day, he sent his friends back with a gun and they shot one member dead.”
Gun violence is a big problem in the suburbs. “Lots of my friends have guns,” he explains. “Even those not involved in drugs. It’s easy to buy one. Really, if you have money you can get anything in the suburbs. Buying drugs is like buying a baguette.” He characterizes this state of affairs as “normal.” “You just don’t notice it when you’re from here.”
He trails off and then changes the subject. “The locals don’t like journalists,” he says, smiling, “because they associate them with police raids.”
My heart sinks a little. On the advice of those in the know, I have eschewed my usual clothes and dressed in a hoodie and a nondescript T-shirt that I selected for its insipidity. Off came my American-flag belt, the Union Jack socks that I was given for Christmas, and, for that matter, anything that could feasibly give offense to anyone. On reflection, though, it doesn’t seem as if what I’m wearing will be the problem.
Sarcelles, which is located about ten miles from the center of Paris, is a town of just under 60,000 people, and it is primarily known for its large Jewish population, most of which has come from the former French colonies of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. All told, it is an ugly, uninspiring town, full of soulless concrete and square, functional buildings that could do with a lick of paint and some judicious renovations. But it is neither especially poor nor obviously lawless, and in les banlieues this is an achievement.
Indeed, at first blush the signs of tension are more discernible from the ubiquitous defacement of property than from anything in the atmosphere. “Baise la police” (“F**k the police”) reads one inscription; another: “Nique la BAC” (“F**k the Brigade Anti-Criminalité”). Sarcelles’s rebels are nothing if not consistent.
Whether you consider Sarcelles to be a “nice area” seems to depend largely on whether you are a Jew. Before I left for France, I was told that, for Jews in France, the situation on the ground was becoming “disastrous.” This, I must confess, I struggled to imagine. Now I will have no such problems.
In the center of Sarcelles, we come across one of the town’s two synagogues and, to our considerable surprise, see three armed soldiers standing outside the gate. These, evidently, are no mall cops. Each one of them is decked out in camouflage-pattern battle fatigues, a flak helmet, and a suit of upper-body armor, and carries a FAMAS automatic rifle around his shoulder. They wouldn’t look out of place in Basra.
Inside, the place is teeming with military personnel. Three soldiers stand outside the doorway, smoking Lucky Strikes and eyeing visitors. Another three patrol the hallway, bunching together near the entrance to the sanctuary. Upstairs, on the balcony that overlooks the bimah, the army has established a makeshift camp. By my count, there are ten troops up there — each one armed to the teeth. Lacking anything much to do, most of them are alternating between staring into space, scrawling letters home, playing at playing cards, and, occasionally, condescending to talk to one another. It is really quite surreal — as if there were a secret war on in Sarcelles and we had just stumbled upon its combatants. Downstairs, I open a door, hoping it’s a bathroom, and find another 30 or so men, busily preparing to relieve the current cast of their duties.
Talking to the captain, I establish that the synagogue is being used as their headquarters. As needs dictate, he explains, the soldiers are being “dispatched to the main targets”: namely, to the larger synagogue across the street, to the Jewish private school, and even to the preschool named after Anne Frank at the foot of the hill. “We are protecting the area in general. But this is the main target.”
The captain impresses upon me that the deployment is a direct response to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and on Jewish people in Porte de Vincennes, and that this level of force is not typical. Looking around the town, however, one sees clearly that security was a grave concern in Sarcelles long before anybody heard the name “Kouachi.” The other synagogue — which also has a considerable military presence — is set back from the road, behind thick iron gates. To enter, visitors must first announce themselves to a remotely viewed camera and, if deemed acceptable, undergo a brief interview with a security guard. Similar rules are in force at the school, which is completely surrounded by a tall, spike-topped, steel fence and guarded by a patrolman in a wooden hut. The locals have seen this coming.
At the smaller of the two synagogues, Rabbi Max Bensoussan agrees to take my questions, welcoming me warmly into a cold, dark storage room that he describes wryly as his “office.” He and his congregation are “traumatized” by recent events, he says, but they are not surprised. During the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians last August, spontaneous anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out in Sarcelles — demonstrations that quickly turned violent. “This was not jihad as much as it was hatred of the Jews,” Bensoussan recalls. “Black Africans and North Africans who were not from this area brought steel bars to their protest. They set fire to cars and trash cans, and they smashed up Jewish-owned shops.”
By all accounts, it could have been a great deal worse. Indeed, the vandals — 200 or so men who openly sang “Slaughter the Jews” — were prevented from directly attacking the town’s main synagogue only by a team of volunteers who, along with a sprinkling of riot police, stood firm before the temple’s gates. Frustrated by the defenders, the mob eventually changed course, electing instead to firebomb a smaller synagogue in nearby Garges-lès-Gonesse. The physical damage was minimal. The psychic damage, however, was grievous.
“I understand why Benjamin Netanyahu wants French Jews to move to Israel,” Bensoussan concedes. “But I want to stay here and live as I want to live. I don’t want to be kicked out.” Usually, he says, the police protect Jews well. But lawmen cannot be everywhere at once and, occasionally, the criminals get their way. In general, he tells me, attacks “happen only from time to time. But in the subway they are daily — especially on those who are wearing a kippah or who are in traditional dress. That happens all the time.”
Despite this intimidation, Bensoussan remains defiant: “We still open. We’ve never closed. Between 250 and 300 people come here. Whether with security or without security, we will always open.”
Next, I head to a kosher café opposite the Jewish school, and there I strike up a conversation with an older man named Jacky who moved here from Tunisia in the 1960s. Jacky, who is Jewish, is keen to draw a distinction between “normal Muslims” and “radical Muslims.” The extremists, he suggests, “have been brainwashed.” The “radicals,” he says, “hate capitalism and Jews viscerally.” (These, it seems, are perceived by many as being one and the same.) “But what do you expect? There is no respect in the schools. The parents are not home. This is not the government’s fault.”
It is clear that Jacky does not regard the problems in Sarcelles and beyond as being of a solely religious nature. He tells me that there are two cités (housing projects) nearby, and that their inhabitants “hate” one another. “For a while they have been no-go zones,” he reports. “But after the terror attacks, the police are going to go in.”
I ask how common violence is. “It happens all the time,” he replies matter-of-factly — “even in chic Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Nicolas Sarkozy was mayor.” Later, I am told a similar story by the security guard at the Jewish school. “The gangs from the cité were fighting last night,” he says with a shrug. “It is not related to religion per se, but to turf wars. One man was shot. It happens frequently.”
I am struck by the nonchalant way in which people bring up such things and then return to ordering coffee and talking about the weather.
In Aulnay-sous-Bois, the streets have quintessentially French names. Entering from the south, we sweep along the Rue Maximilien Robespierre, the Rue Claude Debussy, the Rue Blaise Pascal, and the Rue Paul Cézanne, among other, equally Gallic appellations.
At first, Aulnay looks like a typical run-down French town, of the sort that one might find in Picardy or Champagne or even in parts of the Loire. But then, all of a sudden, it doesn’t. As we enter the Rose des Vents housing project, Kadeen points to a KFC. “That used to be a Renault dealership,” he explains. “They burned it all down in 2005.”
Half a mile later, we enter a parking lot. “Here,” he tells me, pointing to the bays, “they slaughtered a goat at the end of Ramadan.
“And over there,” he laughs, “there was a giant Palestine flag.”
Compared with some of the ghettos in America, I suggest, it still looks reasonably safe. “No, no; it’s chaud [hot],” he says. “It’s full of drugs and guns. Don’t get out of the car.” Naturally, I obey. “That’s not the worst,” Kadeen says. “It’s winter, so people aren’t outside. In the summer, it’s a different story. Still, don’t get out of the car.”
It is clear that the government is trying hard to improve things. After the riots in 2005, I am told, the authorities demolished many of the high-rise housing projects that had become breeding grounds for organized crime and replaced them with smaller, shorter housing that would be easier to maintain. “In the lower blocks, gangs cannot destroy the elevators and trap people at the top of the stairs,” another of my guides tells me. “This way, the government can get in and out.”
The public spaces have been renovated, too, on the theory that a little landscaping might engender more of a village feeling. In some areas, the authorities are giving residents the opportunity to buy their apartments — an experiment intended to change people’s attitudes toward their homes. The police station in the project has been shut down and reopened, in an attempt to regain some control, and the town has even helped locals to build a mosque, selling the developers the land for a single symbolic euro.
Aesthetically speaking, these reforms have been successful. Rose des Vents is never going to be a desirable place to live, but it at least looks cared-for now. In fact, the upshot of the renewal is that the few crumbling areas that remain now look bizarrely out of place. It is, I think, as if someone had plonked a series of cheap, whitewashed seaside hotels next to the Bronx River Houses.
And yet, for all these little victories, les banlieues do not primarily present a problem of aesthetics. “You can have drugs and guns in low-rise buildings, too!” Kadeen tells me. And, by all accounts, their inhabitants do. In fact, it may now be even worse. Previously, the rival gangs at least lived apart from one another. Now they have been put together.
Worst of all, perhaps, is that the removal of the high-rise towers has done almost nothing for those who are trying to get on with their lives. In searching for a job, one’s address is a big factor. It is difficult to get a job if you’re from a bad area, regardless of how tall your apartment building is or how nicely landscaped is the parking lot. Meanwhile, the absence of the towers can make it tough for locals to work out where not to go. The chaud areas, I am told, are not always obvious to the uninitiated, and, occasionally, this can lead to disaster.
As we drive on, the view from the car becomes progressively more depressing until, eventually, we reach Mille-Mille — a housing project that is described to me as “the heart of the drug dealers’ terrain.” Here, the buildings are run down and the streets are a mess. Nobody moves out of the way when our car approaches, while many make a point of sauntering around in front of us so that we cannot move. Other cars ignore the rules of the road, and one driver heads straight at us until we move out of the way. On every corner there are a couple of tall, thin, dark-skinned men in baseball caps, jeans, and hoodies that obscure most of their faces — “lookouts,” I am quickly told. “The gangs will know we’re here,” Kadeen tells me, his eyes darting from side to side. “They’ll quickly know who’s in the car. They’ll know if it’s the police.”
We pass one such lookout — a little too closely, perhaps. He has headphones on and is mouthing something. Perhaps he is singing along? Perhaps he is talking on the phone? Perhaps he is attempting to intimidate us? Who knows?
Everywhere, people stare. There are no women anywhere to be seen.
In front of the mosque, they sell hard drugs: mainly heroin, cocaine, and LSD. I am informed that anything stronger than marijuana used to be considered “bourgeois,” but that the rappers have now made it seem okay.
Approximately 80 percent of those who live in Aulnay’s cités are Muslim, I am told. “So,” I ask, “is this one of those sharia-bound no-go areas that we always hear about?”
To my surprise, the question provokes laughter. “That’s a myth,” my hosts exclaim. “It’s impossible.” There are certainly serious “tensions” between the police and the locals, one guide says. “Police won’t go and interfere with women illegally wearing niqabs because they don’t want to prompt retaliation. Definitely, there’s tolerance toward this stuff.” Recently, I learn, a veiled woman who was stopped by police refused to hand over her ID. Instead, she called for help. Quickly, the police in the area were surrounded, and, hoping to defuse the situation, the local commissioner let her go. Angry at the intrusion, a gang came back and burned a copy of the civil code.
This, it seems, is fairly typical. But sharia, as we understand it? “No.”
In the nearby suburb of Sevran, I talk to the deputy mayor, and I ask him the same question. “The reforms have not improved things,” he concedes, sadly. Nevertheless, he echoes my guides’ astonishment at the suggestion that the civil authorities have lost control of certain areas. “Did you hear that on Fox News?” he asks, derisively. “I am angry at Fox News.
“There are tensions,” he continues. “But it is not true that police are afraid to go in. If there are stone throwers, the police do not back out.”
I am struck by his indignation. Still, it seems that the police do make some concessions. While they would rather go on foot, they inevitably conduct their cité patrols in their cars for fear of being hurt. Moreover, they simply do not have time to enforce the laws against the burqa and the niqab, or to do much of anything that might anger the troublemakers. “Some laws are low-priority,” the deputy tells me, defiantly; “as everywhere in Paris.”
Over kebabs and Cokes, we take Gennevilliers’s temperature. It was here — next door to our café, in fact — that the Kouachi brothers lived, assembled their cache of weaponry, and planned their deadly attack.
The customers here do not feel that the incident has much to do with them. “This place has got a lot of attention,” the cook tells me as he gets me a soda. “But nothing has changed. We were not involved. It was bad luck that he was from here. But we don’t feel part of the story.”
He looks at me suspiciously and asks: “Are you American?” I say that I am British but live in the United States. “Fox News gave the wrong impression!” he exclaims, ignoring me. At the mention of Fox, the other customers come alive. Like the deputy mayor of Sevran, they are irritated by the claims being made. “There is not just one nest of radicalism,” one says to me. “It can happen anywhere. The Kouachis were radicalized inside Paris.”
Another fellow, a young white man who doesn’t appear to fit in, says that he is tired of being asked about the attacks. “We talk about it like everybody talks about it,” he complains. “But bad people can be everywhere. I saw Chérif [Kouachi]. He came in and ate sometimes. He was sociable. I never saw his wife — not once. But he is not the image of Gennevilliers. People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘But what do you think?’ What do I think? I condemn this, of course. I’m a free Muslim.”
Around the corner, three soldiers are guarding the entrance to the Grand Mosque. Inside, another eight patrol the courtyard. As I arrive, a crowd of heavily armed police are finishing up a meeting of some sort, smiling and joking with one another as if this were any other day. As they leave, locals begin to arrive for their evening prayers. It is busy.
In a back room, I meet with Ben Ali, the head of the non-profit Ennour Association, which manages the facility. Ali explains to me that he believes the Kouachi brothers were “criminals” and that he “condemns” what they did. I ask him what contact he had with them. “Chérif came here sometimes on Fridays,” he tells me. But he stopped coming after the mosque ran a voter-registration drive. “He started shouting that Muslims should not be taking part in any elections that were not held under Koranic law,” Ali says. For this outburst, he was escorted off the premises.
Ali tells me that he doesn’t “agree with terrorism,” but that he is certainly “not Charlie.” “The cartoons” that were published in Charlie Hebdo, he proposes, “are undignified and provocative.” Because “the Prophet has a very important place in the hearts of Muslims,” he does not consider it to be “a good time to respond to terrorism by humiliating a whole community.” Instead, he explains, one should “look for rapprochement, one should look for calm.”
I ask where responsibility lies for the acts of radicals — “criminals,” in Ali’s words. “It is not just the responsibility of the mosques,” he says. There is also a role for parents and teachers. Those who commit acts of terrorism, he contends, have “no stable family and no education” and are in consequence a “blank page on which extremists can write.”
Ali’s harshest words are reserved for the French education system, which he thinks is failing in its duty to assimilate immigrants and their children. In this part of France, he tells me, “teachers consider [immigrants] non-French. And so [immigrants] feel non-French and take refuge in their original cultures. They should be taught to love France, not anywhere else.”
To illustrate this point, Ali has a story. A while back, he says, the Algerian soccer team was beaten by the Egyptian soccer team. Noticing that the students were talking about the game, a local teacher told those of Algerian descent that they had “taken a hit.” This, Ali said, was agreed with by the students. On the same night, France was beaten by Argentina. So the kids replied to the teacher, “Well, you took a hit, too.” But, Ali says with passion, “They’re all French!”
On its own, this is a reasonable-sounding proposition — perhaps even a lovely one. But one has to wonder what it means in practice. On paper, the French are even more committed to the establishment of a single national identity than are Americans. In France, statisticians are forbidden to collect information on race and ethnicity when taking the census, and, there being no official concept of “minorities,” there is no established concept of “minority rights,” either. This, the state claims, helps foster a uniquely “French” culture. In reality, however, France is now facing a set of serious domestic problems that America — which permits rampant hyphenation and frequently encodes racial categorization into the law — is evidently not. To what extent, one has to wonder, has it become French policy simply not to discuss what everybody knows is happening?
Which is to say that one cannot help but feel a little sorry for the flotsam and jetsam that has settled on the banks of les banlieues. Having been brought in during the “30 glorious years” that followed the end of World War II to work the jobs that the natives didn’t want, a whole raft of people are now stuck in a country that does not quite know what to do with them — and, for that matter, in which many are actively hostile toward them. Indeed, for all their talk of equality, the French are astonishingly racist when compared both with Europe in general and with the unusually tolerant Anglosphere, and they have shown no signs of actually adopting the sort of idea-driven “melting pot” approach that has made the United States so successful. As a rule, it is admirable and necessary for existing polities to insist that those who choose to join them adhere to their values and respect their laws. And yet, for the system of assimilation to work as intended, the natives must extend a warm welcome to the newcomers, and the education system must presume its new charges to be equals. As it stands, the question of what it means to be French remains worryingly open; immigrants still struggle considerably to find work and take part in mainstream national life; and the explicitly nativist National Front is hitting 30 percent in opinion polls. Despite this, France continues to import people from wildly different cultures and, more often than not, to funnel them into ghettos in which they become useless, or hopeless, or radicalized — and, occasionally, all three. Should we really be surprised that it’s not working?
At the Place de la République, beside the famous slogans of French republicanism, the locals are affirming their commitment to an idea. “Je suis Charlie,” they say, the stirring chorus of “La Marseillaise” perhaps running through their heads. “Je suis français.” Meanwhile, outside the Périphérique, there is silence — punctured only by the occasional gunshot, by the sound of a car being set alight, and by a plaintive, nonplussed, disjoined inquiry: “Je suis . . . qui, exactement?”