As terrorism trial unfolds in Paris, France confronts its problem with Islamist extremism

“This is our separatism.”

Separatism — a word that has weight in many countries, notably Canada.

Here the speaker was French, in fact it was French President Emmanuel Macron.

The separatism he was talking about, in a major and long-delayed speech on Oct. 2, was Islamist separatism in France, an effort by Muslim hardliners in the country to capitalize on the alienation many young Muslims feel to create a regiment of fighters for jihad, or holy war against France, the West and Jews.  

The result has been a series of fatal attacks in the last decade in France, as well as the presence of French Muslims fighting in extreme groups in the Middle East.

Macron’s timing was no accident. 

Police officers stand by a knife, seen on the ground, in Paris on Sept. 25, 2020. French terrorism authorities investigated a knife attack that wounded at least two people near the former offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, authorities said. (Soufian Fezzani Via AP)

His speech took place during the first major terrorism trial in Paris after the attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store in January 2015, the co-ordinated killings in cafés and the Bataclan theatre in November 2015, and finally the truck assault in Nice on Bastille Day, July 14, in 2016.

The combined death toll was more than 230.

Most of the attackers were French-born, but all saw themselves as Islamist jihad fighters. 

So important is the trial, expected to last for several more weeks, that judicial authorities have allowed video cameras to record it.

So important did Macron consider the speech that he made it in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, which consumes the attention of the country.

A glass box is seen in a courtroom where the trial over the deadly attacks on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in 2015 is taking place in Paris. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

The French president’s diagnosis was brutal. 

“We ourselves have constructed our own separatism,” he said, by creating ghettos in the suburbs of major cities, particularly Paris. 

In these ghettos live most of France’s Muslims. Their number is estimated at approximately 5,750,000 or around 8.5 per cent of the French population.

That number from Pew Research in 2017 is approximate because French law stipulates that the census cannot ask about the religion of any resident of the country.  

‘A concentration of misery and difficulties’

For many Muslims in France, the future looks like a locked door. 

Or, as Macron put it, “we built a concentration of misery and difficulties, we concentrated populations according to origin and social milieu. We created neighbourhoods where the promise of the republic was never kept and where these most radical forms [of Islamism] became sources of hope.”

It also created fertile ground for imams trained in the Middle East and North Africa to radicalize young men. 

Issa, who requested confidentiality because of a fear of reprisals, is a young man I talked to from a poor Paris suburb, populated largely by families of North African and African origin. 

“Liberty, equality, fraternity — those words have no value here,” he said. “They only have value in the centre of Paris. Liberty — you go out and the police stop you five or six times a day. Equality — when you try to find work, you don’t have the same chance as someone in a rich district of Paris. Fraternity — everyone fears the other, the foreigner — the Black or the North African.”

A man wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus looks at a painting by French street artist Christian Guemy, a.k.a. C215, in tribute to the members of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo attacked in January 2015. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

Other factors also contribute to a sense of alienation. 

In the Seine Saint-Denis suburb just north of the central district of Paris, which has a population largely of North African origin, the unemployment rate in late 2019 was 27 per cent. The national rate was less than nine per cent.

“Getting a job, no, just getting in the door, is much harder if your name is Mohammed,” one young man with a university degree once told me. 

Several studies in the last three years, notably by the sociologist Marie-Anne Valfort, back him up, concluding it’s at least 50 per cent harder for young Muslims to get job interviews than for non-Muslims.

‘All the time, every day’

Muslims are often the target of open racism from police. The most recent charge came from a police whistleblower, Brig. Amar Benmohammed. In July 2020, he detailed hundreds of incidents of racist language over two years in the police cells at Paris’s main court house.

“Racist language, it’s all the time, every day,” a police officer talking about fellow officers told the French national radio, France Info, this summer. 

“They call them bastards, rats, members of dirty races,” said another police officer, of North African origin working in the Paris region. The racist comments, the officers believe, reflect a poisonous mindset widespread in the police.

“French Muslims are fed up with the hateful invective and racist comments emanating from individuals and groups around the country,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the Union of French Mosques. 

That is the unsettling background to the trial in Paris. 

Thousands of people gather at Republique Square in Paris on Jan. 11, 2015, eight days after the attack against Charlie Hebdo. (Peter Dejong/The Associated Press)

Ten of the 11 defendants accused of helping the three killers prepare the attacks had been in prison — for drug dealing, assault, even kidnapping and murder. It was in prison that several met the killers — the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly — or their friends.

The three killers had been mentored by hardline Islamists at a mosque in northern Paris. Two had been arrested and imprisoned for terrorist offences, including trying to join the jihad in Iraq. There, among fellow Muslims, they preached the virtues of religious war, according to police.

In French prisons, Muslims form an outsize minority. Using the imperfect measure of requests for Ramadan meals, the French Ministry of Justice in 2017 calculated Muslims represent 26 per cent of the country’s prison population. 

Once back in the ghetto suburbs, the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo killings were able to outwit the French security services with ease. 

Obtained arms without police knowing

One police investigator, chief inspector Nicolas Guidoux, said at the trial that one of the attack leaders, Chérif Kouachi, “had simply played with the security and intelligence services.”

The proof was that the attackers were able to obtain arms, detonators, bullet-proof vests, a large car and several safe houses — all without the police knowing.

One of the accused, Willy Prevost, isn’t Muslim but had run up a huge drug debt with one of the killers. He was told to obtain Tasers and bullet-proof vests.

“You don’t go to the police in the suburbs. If you do, thugs come after your family,” he said. 

Three of the key accused aren’t even in court. They escaped to Syria around the time of the attacks. Two are believed dead, but the wife of one of the killers has reportedly been seen alive there. The French anti-terrorist police have taken the sighting seriously enough to open a criminal inquiry.

In the face of this, Macron’s suggested remedy seems thin.  

He said France will stop allowing foreign imams to come to indoctrinate French Muslims and a new law will outlaw home schooling. All children will have to go to state schools and learn about the ideals and principles of the French republic. (At the moment, authorities believe a worrying minority of Muslim children go to secret Islamist schools.)

It almost certainly won’t be enough. The French interior minister said as the trial opened that the police had, on average, broken up one terrorist plot every month for the past three years.

One they didn’t break up took place outside the former offices of Charlie Hebdo two weeks after the trial opened. A man wielding a large knife wounded two people seriously.

France’s problems with Islamist extremism are far from over.

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