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French suburbs: Tinderboxes of terrorism?

Suburbs such as l’Ariane, where the Nice attacker lived, have acquired a stigma in public discourse and a sense of discrimination hangs heavy in the air

world Updated: Jul 24, 2016 16:16 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times
Imams lay a wreath in memory of victims of the Bastille Day attack in the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.(Prasun Sonwalkar/ HT )

One of the prominent sights amid the sullen normalcy of the Promenade des Anglais soon after last week’s Bastille Day attack that killed 84 people was the large number of broadcast vans, TV crews and journalists, busy reporting the massacre to the world.

As the name of the attacker was revealed – Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel – attention soon shifted to the neighbourhood of l’Ariane in northeast Nice, 10 km away from the sunny and sylvan tourist hotspot, where he lived. The media scrum, however, was not exactly welcome in the area.

Some were targeted with eggs thrown from buildings, others found angry and sullen residents would not speak to them, or discussed the attack with much reluctance, but mostly without identifying themselves. The reason was soon clear.

Suburbs such as l’Ariane – or “banlieues” in French – have acquired a stigma in public discourse and a sense of discrimination hangs heavy in the air. The media are seen as a key player in the relentless stereotyping that tarnishes the suburbs as the Other.

Such suburbs across France – also seen as ghettos – are mostly inhabited by immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa – and predominantly Muslim. The 2005 riots in Paris began from the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, and rolled on for weeks before cooling off.

Clashes between riot police and French youths in the Paris suburb of Aulnay sur Bois in November 2005. (Reuters File)

Like Bouhlel, those involved in the 2005 Paris riots or the November 2015 Paris attacks hailed from banlieues, which underwent major renovations since the riots, but what Prime Minister Manuel Valls calls “social apartheid” remains in place, physically and in public imagination.

The cauldron of socio-economic deprivation, joblessness and lack of education fits the recent narrative of “Islamic radicalisation” that conflates with the official narrative of security, framing the suburbs as “breeding grounds of terrorism”. Over the years, the specific has been extrapolated to the general.

Nihar Mehta, an Indian classical music performer in Nice, says: “There is a serious problem of integration in certain communities. Not surprising that journalists are not welcome in the suburbs, because residents feel they paint the entire community as the villain. But the situation is quite complex.”

There have been reports of some Muslim youth in Nice and the region being attracted to the slick videos of the Islamic State, particularly in the town of Vallauris, west of Nice, since 2012, but they are seen as generalising the entire community in the Alpes-Maritimes area.

Thousands gather on the Promenade des Anglais on the third day of national mourning to pay tribute to victims of the Nice attack. (REUTERS)

The Nice massacre has reignited debate over the benefits and drawbacks of the French policy of “assimilation” towards minorities and immigrants, and Britain’s policy of “multiculturalism” – both, however, have led to the same situation, where both countries face homegrown terrorism, revealing the limits of the “one size fits all” theory.

Joseph Downing of the London School of Economics is no fan of the thesis of French suburbs as “breeding grounds for terrorism”, mainly because of its inability to explain why the vast majority, 99%, of those who experience similar marginalisation does not get involved with terrorism.

“Rather, the picture that emerges from all of the attackers is a complex picture of those with a significant criminal history and a history of emotional disturbance. However, again there are thousands of people of Muslim origin in France who have criminal records, and indeed who may have also experienced periods of poor mental health. Again, the vast majority do not turn to terrorism,” he says.

However, Downing adds this should not be taken as a dismissal of both social, in terms of discrimination, and economic, in terms of labour market, housing, and job prospects, issues that those of Muslim origin overwhelmingly face in France.

“Indeed, 30 years of near inaction by the French state have worked to entrench populations in extremely difficult living conditions where the promises of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’ seem rather empty,” he says.

“These communities desperately want to be part of mainstream French society, with the social, economic and cultural benefits that come with it, and it remains a challenge to not let recent events further marginalise these populations because of unsound explanations for terrorism. The last thing these communities need is further suspicion and discrimination.”

Concurs Birmingham City University’s Imran Awan, who believes the Nice massacre shows this is a battle with extremists who are less inspired by religion and more by the socio-economic conditions they live in.

“Radicalisation is a complex phenomenon for which there is no single pathway. Many people are coming from different areas and backgrounds, and with different reasons for committing acts of terrorism and violence,” he says.

“Europe needs to look for answers elsewhere and stop blaming the victims of persecution who are fleeing war zones. This moral panic plays into the hands of extremists like IS.”

A soldier secures the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France, Monday, two days after the Bastille Day attack. (AP)

The state of emergency declared after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and now continued for six more months after the Nice massacre is seen as further diminishing France’s liberties. More than 2,500 raids conducted since then have reportedly focussed mostly on Muslim homes, businesses and mosques.

Immigrant communities also face ethnic profiling and police violence, prompting a new movement against it.

On the policies of assimilation (French) and multiculturalism (British), noted writer Kenan Malik suggested after the November 2015 Paris attacks: “An ideal policy would marry the beneficial aspects of the two approaches – celebrating diversity while treating everyone as citizens, rather than as simply belonging to particular communities.

“In practice, though, Britain and France have both institutionalised the more damaging features – Britain placing minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, France attempting to create a common identity by treating those of North African origin as the Other.

“The consequence has been that in both Britain and France societies have become more fractured and tribal. And in both nations a space has been opened up for Islamism to grow,” he wrote in The Guardian.