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The Jihadist, The New Specter Of The French Banlieues

Ten years after the 2005 French riots, the anxious image of the country's banlieues has changed. The fear is no longer about hooded youths armed with Molotov cocktails, but instead the suspected radical Islamist.

Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy, in eastern France
Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy, in eastern France
Sylvia Zappi

PARIS — After the 2005 deaths of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois, northeast of Paris, the riots that spread among French suburbs were on the front pages of newspapers around the world. A decade later came the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket killings that both the media and politicians presented as a symptom of the French suburbs crisis. But during the 10 intervening years, the anxiety-provoking imagery of the banlieues haschanged.

Front pages have stopped showing buildings in flames or groups of hooded youth throwing Molotov cocktails at police. They now display the faces of arrested or suspected jihadists. In just a decade, the face of social fear transformed and, with it, the stereotypical representations of the suburbs.

According to columnists who denounce the "Islamic specter," and to the diatribes of the essayists and uninhibited far-right politicians, a new threat has emerged from the suburban depths: the radical Islamist, who becomes indoctrinated on social networks and eventually leaves to go on jihad in Syria or Afghanistan, before returning and executing the holy war onto French soil.

The right wing and the National Front have been raging against the laxity of the government, which they say let the seeds of radicalization grow in these suburbs. But this government hasn't been outdone. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, it has made the fight against radical Islam a priority in the banlieues. But jihadism doesn't just recruit in the suburbs. Among those the police have identified, they come from 83 French departments (of 101), and represent a host of social environments and cultural origins. Many are women. Even so, the stereotypes persist.

Permanent fear

Social fear about the fringes of society is nothing new. In the early 20th century, it was expressed towards the Apaches, a gang of young thugs and small-time gangsters from the Parisian outskirts. Then came the blousons noirs (France's greasers that appeared in the 1950s), who terrified the conformist France of the 1960s. The permanence of this fear, based on a vision in which the blue-collar classes are always dangerous — especially the young men — doesn't surprise sociologists.

"Since the suburbs were presented in terms of "problems," negative figures succeeded each other there," explains Didier Lapeyronnie, a sociology professor at Sorbonne University in Paris. "It started in the 1980s." With the March for Equality and Against Racism in 1983, where, for the first time, thousands of youth from the suburbs marched in Paris against racist crimes, and the Convergence March in 1984 that put forward cultural mixing, young people with an immigrant background burst in the collective psyche. There were faces encircled by Arab headdress, with James Brown or Angela Davis-like hairstyles, and they were often angry and worrying radical.

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The destruction left in 2005. Photo: Alain Bachellier

The presages of the young, uncontrollable and dubious immigrants with minority religions were already emerging. The banlieues and Islam were, for that matter, implicitly associated by about 1982, during the automobile strikes at Talbot Poissy and Citroën Aulnay, during which the Pierre Mauroy government accused Moroccan workers of carrying out a "fundamentalist" and "Shia" strike.

Islam, more visible so more suspicious

There has always been this fear of poor classes piling up on the outskirts of the city. "In a context of racialization and ethnicization, the shape taken by its expression has changed, but it remains the same nature," says Renaud Epstein, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Nantes. In the 1990s, when many young people fell into drugs and trafficking, some turned to religion. That's when the first diatribes against underground Islam appeared, as well as the first articles and denunciations of the Muslim Brotherhood recruiting at the foot of the high-rise building units.

The fear of a sectarian withdrawal was taking shape. This figure was also embodied by Khaled Kelkal, a small-time thug from Vaulx-en-Velin, outside Lyon, who became an Islamist terrorist linked to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (AIG). "For the past 30 years, we've been hearing things that are less and less connected with the complex realities that can be seen in the poorer neighborhoods," says Abdellali Hajjat, a researcher in political science at the University of Nanterre. With the concentration of immigrant populations in poorer neighborhoods, the emergence of mosques here and there, and the idea of religious refuge as an identity for young people who feel rejected by French society, Islam in the banlieues became more visible, and thus even more suspicious.

Suddenly, with young French people leaving to join ISIS, with the perpetuation of terrorist attacks in France, new figures of danger are emerging. "The international geopolitical situation has increased the tension, because it sets off comparisons and parallels on what is happening on the national territory," says Patrick Simon, a researcher at the French Institute for Demographic Studies. "There's been much more tension towards Islam these past five years, where racism, strict secular visions and Islamophobia are expressed." In this context, the "radical Islamism = terrorism" has become common sense. But Islam can be radical without praising violence, and nobody looks more like an Islamist than the bearded men in qamis one might see outside mosques.

"The social psyche is built with images, and this becomes dangerous when they are exploited by the National Front or some Republicans," warns Gérard Mauger, research director at the Sorbonne's European Center for Sociology and Political Science.

With the return of terrorism in France, the idea that Islam can be lethally dangerous has spread. "Islamism is no longer only a threat for the relegated areas in which it wants to shut women away behind a veil. It is also a threat for the entire society by making bombs explode," says political specialist Renaud Epstein.

The extremist National Front, which designates immigration as a major threat to the national identity, is essentially saying that all Muslims are potentially dangerous, not just the hooded youth. "We've gone from a negative representation that only targeted young people to all adults and families," says Marie-Hélène Bacqué, a socio-urbanist at the Nanterre University.

Increasing tension around identity

There is increasing tension around the French identity, which is overwhelmingly white and Christian. But it's the day-to-day changes going on around people that creates fear. "What scares people is what will disturb them on a daily basis: out or order elevators, drug trafficking, occupied cellars. Not the bearded Muslims," says Etienne Pingaud, a doctor in sociology.

Fabien Truong, the author of Des capuches et des homes (Of Hoods and Men), shares this observation. "People who spread these fantasies speak of a world they don't know," he says. "When you're in the field, you see clearly that the practice of Islam by a suburban youth and that of an ISIS soldier have nothing to do with each other, and that the Kouachi-like paths are very rare."

To debunk these misconceptions, experts say it's important to show the diversity of paths and trajectories of suburban residents. "We would then realize that there is much more damage done through discrimination and unemployment than with radicalized youth," says Patrick Simon.

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