A wave of immigrants arrived in France from Chechnya during the early 2000s after the wars with Russia. A minority of this Muslim community has been radicalized, including an 18-year-old who beheaded a French schoolteacher in October.
Along the Seine, halfway between the Brie and Gâtinais rivers, Djamboulat Souleimanov tries to squeeze his large frame into a seat at a picnic table, his right leg a little stretched out to the side to spare a stiff knee. It's an old injury that this former Chechen military commander is still dealing with. It's a physical memento of a past that he now evokes in broad strokes. It starts with Souleimanov as a history student at the University of Grozny, his studies completed on the eve of the first war that pitted this small Caucasian territory with a Muslim majority against the great might of Russia. December 1994, he served at the head of a battalion of 280 fighters, before he had a brief appointment — barely six months— as ambassador to Malaysia for an equally short-lived independent Chechnya. Because then came the second war, even more deadly, that began in 1999 when he had only just begun to work as a teacher. And finally, he left.
At the time, Djambulat Souleimanov couldn't find anywhere safe. Neither in Qatar, which he left after the assassination of a fellow countryman, nor in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he had to change apartment every day. He finally decided on France, where he arrived with his wife and five children in 2006, taking advantage of a stopover at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport.
They share a tragic history.
That year, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra) counted 1,798 Russian case files, "three quarters of which were Chechens." In its report, the government agency noted their "fears both of the Russian federal authorities and of the local security forces controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov." In 2007, the year Vladimir Putin put Kadyrov in charge of Chechnya, Suleimanov was granted refugee status in France.
Two of his children are now studying at the Sorbonne, in literature and philosophy. They're his great pride but, at the age of 48, this private chauffeur is worried again.
First there was the series of murders across Europe of former separatist Chechens who fell from grace in the eyes of Grozny: in Austria on July 4, in Lille in January and in Berlin in Aug. 2019. Fear has grown stronger. Europe no longer offers the security many had hoped for.
Then two events of very different natures tainted the image of the Chechen diaspora specifically in France. Last June, violent Chechen gangs caused nights of unrest in working-class neighborhoods in Dijon and Nice. Then, in Oct., Professor Samuel Paty was assassinated by a young Chechen radical, Abdouallakh Anzorov, who had arrived in France at the age of 6. This tragedy, two years after a deadly knife attack committed by another young Chechen in Paris, left the community paralyzed.
"We have lost a lot of time," says Souleimanov. Created in Strasbourg in 2017, the Bart Marsho ("unity and freedom") association, which he chaired until he recently handed over the reins, hoped to change the image of Chechens in Europe and to fight against extremism among young people. Internal dissension and a lack of resources made it impossible to achieve these goals. "Neighborhoods and the internet have become a big problem for us," says Souleimanov, who is more at ease speaking in Russian, the dominant language of the refugees.
This recently arrived diaspora, still little known and poorly organized, is estimated to have between 40,000 and 60,000 members across France, including 16,000 with refugee status in 2019. (This is an imprecise figure due to the lack of "ethnic" statistics in the country). Young and old, officially French citizens or those waiting for this status, they share a tragic history: the massacres perpetrated by the Russian Empire during the colonization of the region in the 19th century and the deportation of the entire population to Central Asia under Stalin. More recently there have been two wars against Russia with their procession of horrors that lasted well beyond the official end of the fighting in 2000, before the unstoppable regime of Ramzan Kadyrov was established under the control of Moscow. This is a weighty legacy, imported to Strasbourg, Paris or Nice, where the refugees have settled, for the most part in so-called "sensitive" neighborhoods.
Three hundred of them are registered in the file of alerts for the prevention of terrorist radicalization (FSPRT), which it must be noted is a small proportion. This did not prevent this summer's violence from getting wrapped up as a "Chechen problem," as French National Assembly Member Jean-Luc Mélenchon put it, thus giving substance to persistent clichés. In the middle of the presidential debate with Lionel Jospin, in May 1995, then future-President Jacques Chirac quoted from memory a poem by Lermontov. The poem had been transformed into a lullaby, "which all little Russians heard, and which said: ‘My little one, sleep. The big bad Chechen is sharpening his knife and your daddy is watching."" "It's an old, old business, the Chechen business," said Chirac.
Those from the Caucuses have a reputation for violence, conveyed in Russian literature, and maintained, it is true, by their immoderate taste for combat sports, especially mixed martial arts (MMA). This has enabled them to find work in the security field, as security guards or bouncers, especially in nightclubs along the French Riviera.
In the Grésilles neighborhood of Dijon, it only took a few exchanges on WhatsApp for about a hundred Chechens from France, Belgium and Germany to organize so-called "punishment raids' against inhabitants of North African origin. They were accused of having attacked a young person from the Chechen diaspora. At the same time, in Nice, other fights broke out not to take a share of the the drug trafficking business, assured the Chechens, but to put an end to the violence linked to drug trafficking in their neighborhood. As if they were counting on their own strength to make their voices heard.
"This facade of unity that has emerged in Dijon does not help French society to see them as anything other than a united community," says Anne Le Huérou, a lecturer at the University of Paris Nanterre and a specialist in Russian and post-Soviet studies. "Above all, this says nothing about their rather successful integration process."
Oct. 12 march in Rennes, France, in tribute to slain teacher Samuel Paty — Photo: Imago/ZUMA
"For a very short period of time, Chechens knew what a state worthy of the name was. But we mostly survived the efforts of the Soviet and then Russian state to destroy us, so for many of us, the state is an enemy," says 49-year-old Adam Tsami. Tsami is settled in Paris, where he works in an emergency shelter while pursuing a masters degree in political studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. But his life follows the same traumatic path of many Chechens: the war, the convoys of wounded he accompanied to Azerbaijan, the flight to Malaysia and then to Kyrgyzstan, where his parents lived years ago following deportation. But there too, security was not certain. "Four times, Putin announced amnesty, but, in spite of that, ‘they" came to see me," says Tsai. It was only in 2011 that he was able to reach France, where, recently, he feels that history is catching up with him.
From Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov still watches over everything, meddles in everything. He sows terror in Chechnya, where disappearances and arbitrary arrests have never ceased. His satisfaction with the behavior of the Chechens in Dijon, deemed by him to be "correct", his attempt to organize protests in retaliation for Charlie Hebdo cartoons and his instrumentalization of religion are chilling. "In our Parliament elected in 1991, the only year in which elections were held under normal circumstances, there was not one Islamist, not one," says Adam Tsami. He adds that later, foreign Salafists arrived during the wars "and now it's Sufi Islamization the religious practice of Sunni Islam dominant in Chechnya." Above all, there are Kadyrov's "infiltrators," those emissaries, whether forced or voluntary, who one had to learn to be wary of in France itself.
Seda, 22, begs her mother to stop commenting on social media discussions about their homeland. The oldest of four siblings, she prefers to keep quiet about her family name. The daughter of a well-known military leader, this business law student remembers arriving in Ingushetia, a territory adjoining Chechnya that had taken in thousands of refugees, including Seda's family. Then there was Istanbul and finally Paris, or rather its suburbs, where she was obsessed with learning French as quickly as possible.
Thin, with a pale complexion and hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, this young woman has been speaking up since the death of her father last year: "We shouldn't be seen as people who complain. Everyone has a weighty history behind them, but Chechens work, women as well as men." For Seda, Charlie Hebdo"s cartoons are "irritating," but that didn't prevent the family from going to pay tribute to the victims of the Jan. and Nov. 2015 attacks in Paris. "My father was very attached to them," she says. "Until now, at least until recently, the image of the Chechens was rather positive, we managed to blend in. But since Dijon, I don't feel so welcome anymore."
In Nice, 31-year-old Chamil Chamkhanov shares this sentiment. "I did all my education here," says the MMA coach with a typical southern French accent. "Middle school, high school, university, and, after all these years, I'm wondering is it a good idea to say I'm of Chechen origin? I have the same identity card as someone like writer and author Michel Onfray. The big difference is that all I have to do is say "Freedom of expression yes, but" and the perception changes." According to him, the clashes that occurred in the Liserons neighborhood were planned right in front of a powerless police force. "They accused us of wanting to take over the drugs market, but we don't want it! Those among us who go follow that path are rare, because it's a shame for the whole family."
Paul Sollacaro, a criminal lawyer in Nice agrees: "They are almost never involved in drug cases, it's very rare. For the 10 years that I have been defending them, I can tell you that they are people of extreme loyalty, bound by a common culture, a difficult past," says Sollacaro. "They are not whiners, and I often try to explain, perhaps because I am Corsican myself, that they have to fight against a damaged image."
Like all places of worship today, the prayer room in the center of Nice, run by Baskhan Magamadov, one of the few Chechen imams in France, is closed. A refugee himself since 2004, Magamadov repeats to the younger generation: "Listen to the old people."
"With our mentality, our education, we can't be two-faced about it, and Europe has welcomed us," says Magamadov, without hiding his concern. Hostile graffiti tags have appeared in various neighborhoods, and not only in Nice, where one could find: "Our fridges are empty, thank you Chechens!"
Above all, this says nothing about their rather successful integration process.
The imam also sees the growing risk of refusing to grant asylum to the many who have not yet received this golden ticket, or even its withdrawal for others who are suspected of radicalization. Pascale Chaudot confirms this. Twenty years ago, the Chechnya Committee, an association founded by intellectuals and activists that she heads, helped new arrivals to translate their stories for the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons. Today, it intervenes to help prevent deportations.