In France, the projects don’t look like ghettoes, but they’re filled with a poisonous mix of conspiracy theories and a some support for murderous jihadis.
SEVRAN, France — As more than 1.5 million people, including 40 world leaders, converged on Paris on Sunday to rally for unity after terrorist attacks that left 17 innocent people dead, three young men in tracksuits and hoodies lounged outside a fast-food restaurant 10 miles north of the city in Sevran, one of France’s poorest suburbs.
Mehdi Boular, 24, who said he was married with two children, and two of his friends, did not attend Sunday’s rally.
“We’re Muslims,” Boular said. “They might have killed us if we’d gone.”
But even though the flags of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were flying at the rally in Place de la République and Muslims were well represented among the marchers Sunday, Boular said the attacks in Paris were part of a plot masterminded by Jewish conspirators.
“The Kalashnikovs, the identity cards the [killers] supposedly left behind, it was all staged,” said Boular, as his friends nodded in agreement. “It was a conspiracy designed by the Jews to make Muslims look bad. We’d rather just stay where we are.”
No use arguing. No use pointing out that one of the terrorists murdered four Jews. Conspiracy theories have their own unassailable logic, and this is a world apart from the displays of unity in Paris after the carnage of last week. French newspapers reported that some students in these neighborhoods—as well as other heavily Muslim areas near cities like Lille—refused to participate in Thursday’s national moment of silence for the victims of the terror attacks. One teacher said up to 80 percent of his students didn’t want to observe the silence, and some said they supported the attackers. “You reap what you sow,” a student who refused the moment of silence told his teacher in reference to the terrorists’ victims, according to Le Figaro.
Sevran is one of the many notorious banlieues just outside Paris that are home largely to second- and third-generation immigrants from former French colonies in North and West Africa. The town is studded with cement and brick public housing, mostly built in the 1960s and ’70s. Unemployment rates are as high as 35 to 40 percent. Sevran often is lumped in with places like Saint-Denis and nearby Clichy-sous-Bois, the epicenter of weeks of rioting and car burning in 2005. Riots here back in the summer of 1981 led to some of the first mass demonstrations to illustrate the plight of immigrant Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans in France.
The 19th arrondissement in Paris has also become synonymous with immigrant frustration and despair after it became known that the Kouachi brothers, Chérif and Saïd, who died in a hail of gunfire last week after killing 12 people, including eight journalists at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, moved there as teenagers and were recruited by a jihadi network. Born in France, the Kouachis were the orphaned sons of Algerian parents.
The popular narrative is that France’s minority populations, specifically those of North African descent, are marginalized and isolated in what are invariably called “gritty,” or “hardscrabble” areas. Shunned by the French majority, reports often say, the children of North African immigrants are frustrated and resentful because they are blocked from traditional routes of advancement.
But many of the Parisian banlieues appear to an outsider much tamer than gun-ridden American ghettoes and bear no resemblance to, say, a typical favela in Rio de Janeiro or the mafia-run Scampia ghetto in Naples. Much of the 19th arrondissement in Paris, where Cherif Kouachi joined the Buttes-Chaumont terror network 10 years ago, looks about as rundown and sketchy today as Brooklyn’s Park Slope.