Woman walking in an empty street in Lunel, southern France
Woman walking in an empty street in Lunel, southern France
Florence Aubenas

LUNEL — Tac trimmed his beard and cut his hair short. He also stopped wearing his long prayer shirt. After the Paris attacks in November, he thought, the police were bound to come looking for him.

Even his family had gotten into the habit of calling him "Daesh" (acronym for ISIS) as a joke about his appearance and intense approach to Islam. Tac, who is 22, admits he likes the French pop singer Daniel Balavoine, and that his teachers would describe him on report cards as "friendly" and "smart."

Here in Lunel, in the south of France, this young man says he regrets having cut his beard and hair, in large part because he misses seeing people at the local mall "staggered" with fear by his appearance.

Such words are particularly relevant in this mid-sized city, where 15 young people left for Syria in 2014. News followed a few months later that eight of them had been killed.

"We saw it coming, a family secret that everyone knew about, but we pretended not to see it," says Philippe Moissonnier, a town planner and municipal councilor.

Before the deaths, too many locals were caught up in a "romanticism, including very moderate people, who talked about them like the international brigades during the Spanish Civil War," Moissonnier adds.

The Paris attacks would change things even further. Moissonnier, who had thought of the youths who pursued jihad in Syria "as victims of brainwashing," now acknowledges that, "some of them have become executioners." Videos have been circulating. They show two of the Lunel youths taking part in terrible acts in Syria that no one wants to specify.

Unspoken pain

Along a tree-lined avenue, several fathers salute each other in the early morning with an embrace. One of them, wearing a brown djellaba, lost a son in Syria. He never brings it up, and his friends follow his lead. Everyone seems relieved as soon as the father walks away. "We haven't been able to collectively deal with our emotions," says Tahar Akermi, 48, who's worked for 25 years at the Lunel community arts center and youth club. "The Muslim community is petrified. I, myself, can't stop thinking: where did I go wrong?"

Among the affected families, one has left town. The others try to become invisible, including the one that, at first, boasted to have a martyr in the family. Most parents of those who went to Syria have told investigators that they became aware of the departures through a note left on a table, asking for "forgiveness."

Only one father testified spontaneously to the police, in July 2014, as soon as his 23-year-old son, an engineering student, vanished. Laurent Amar is a middle manager, a non-practicing Jew. Since the death of his convert son Raphaël, after only three months in Syria, he filed a complaint for "instigation to participate in terrorist activity." So far, there's been no news of the procedure, according to Jean-Robert Nguyen-Phung, his lawyer.

Between the bar National and the bar des Amis, police officers (from a total of 87) are watching as soldiers file past. Lunel, with its population of 25,000, is the largest "priority safety zone" in France. "It's a collective failure of our society," says Pierre de Bousquet, the prefect of the department.

Meetings between the different institutions are now held every month: among other things, a file with names of certain suspicious profiles are shared. The mayor of Lunel, Claude Arnaud, also takes part. But he has been giving the cold shoulder to journalists, "who tarnish the image of the town."

Jacques Choukroum, a cinema professor, traces the causes back to the early days of immigration. "I don't want be part of the Muslim-victim syndrome, but Lunel has been a hotbed for hatred," he says.

When he arrived in town, in 1981, Choukroum remembers large graffiti in the middle of the marketplace that lingered on a wall for years: "Death to Arabs." In 1983, Lunel became the first town in France where two elected representatives of the far-right National Front (FN) joined the municipal council. The FN got 47% of the vote at the last regional elections in December.

A persistent dividing line has cut the old town in two. On one side, the quaint covered market, Notre-Dame-du-Lac, where mass is packed with "Pescalunes," the designation that distinguishes the natives from the simple residents, the "Lunellois." On the other side, the halal butcher shops, the tea rooms, teenagers in the brown shadows of the porches outside old mansions that are crumbling after years in the hands of slumlords.

The town is just big enough so people don't have to mix, but also too small for them to ignore each other. So they gaze across, imagining the life of the other that inevitably doesn't always correspond to reality. The two soccer clubs, the two cafés, the two schools — one of which is nicknamed the "French Lycée" — all face each other.

These past 18 months, a shower of euros have arrived in an attempt to pacify the town: 60 million euros altogether for works on the main road, the renovation of the train station, a new school and social center.

Local guru

Young people are drinking beer in a car outside the closed building of their high school. Night is falling. They prefer not to go to the town center — "too dangerous," they say. All of them, including the girl, want to work for the police or the army.

Placed on a traffic circle between a construction store and a laundry, the El-Baraka mosque is like crystal ball in which everyone is trying to read the future. Gilles Kepel, the noted French specialist of Islam, wrote a chapter about this in his latest book, Terreur dans l'Hexagone (Terror in France), talking about the local imam who had to flee after receiving death treats, the reshuffling of mosque directors, changes to the religious practices.

It's also at El-Baraka that Kepel says wasn't, for the first time in his life, allowed to enter a mosque. In 2009, the majestic building was supposed to symbolize how Lunel's Muslims managed to organize themselves on their own. It soon became the mosque where noted Muslims of the whole southern French region wanted to come. But it got too big, and there were too many people. Soon, no one in Lunel had the stature to control it.

"So everyone started coming here to hunt," a worshiper says. "A small group of young people started trying to impose themselves upon the older people, saying only they knew the real Islam."

A few of them took up residence, sometimes staying day and night. Investigators also identified former members of the Algerian maquis, a sort of local guru living in a suburban area and a radical imam from the nearby city of Montpellier.

There's still one mystery: the small group of friends from Lunel, who left and died almost simultaneously, in less than a year. There are stories about a weekend away in a farm in the Cévennes mountains, evenings spent at the "Bahut," a fast-food restaurant located near the high school, where they would meet. They talked about "the massacre of the Palestinian or Syrian people," and condemned France's legalization of same-sex marriage. The manager of the "Bahut" was among those killed in Syria.

Five arrests were made in January 2015, just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Then a wave of police raids and house arrests followed the attacks in November. Mohamed, 22, talks about the case of a young man from the neighborhood who is being tried for having wired money to a friend in Syria via Paypal, small amounts of 50 or 100 euros. "He's helping a struggling friend, what's wrong with that?" Mohamed asks, as if he were talking about holidays that turned out badly.

He, too, had stayed in contact with another ISIS recruit. "Here, we're all asking ourselves questions like: "What am I doing here?" He left to find answers. Over there, you feel as if you're needed," Mohamed says. The two young men would chat about soccer matches on Skype. Then, one day, the friend died.

One of the survivors would like to come home, but can't. No one comments anymore. The conversation returns to the Paris attacks in November. "What proves ISIS was behind them?" Mohamed asks angrily. "Politicians are brainwashing us."

In 2015, at least, authorities believe no one from Lunel left for Syria.

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