Forced to be “Charlie”

“Schools are in the front line”: how France pointed the finger at young people from the suburbs.


“It’s not completely la zone* here. It’s an old working-class neighborhood surrounded by really affluent areas. You get a pretty good image of the successive strata of immigration that France has known since the 1920’s: Portuguese, Eastern Europeans, people from Northern Africa or the West Indies… It’s very, very mixed. We get lots of single families. Kids who live with their mum – the father’s gone or was never around. There’s also parents who are sick, unemployed or alcoholic. As for the kids, some get into trouble due to bad behaviour. Nothing very serious. The way I see it, they’re just kids.”

We’re in a suburb near Paris. I’ve taken the tube all the way to the end of the line, then jumped on a bus for half an hour. I’m now standing in front of what looks like a pretty well-run secondary school, teaching kids from 11 to 15 years old. A young woman I studied with is now a teacher here. In the days following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, two boys from classes she teaches in, were placed taken into police custody.

On the day after the shooting, it was decided by the French ministry of education that a minute of silence would be observed in all secondary schools across France, to honour the victims. My friend got the news via an email sent after 8am on Thursday morning, shortly before she was to start her first class of the day.

She retells what happened next: “It was really early on, before the hostage situation and all the rest took place. I asked the kids if they knew what Charlie Hebdo was. Most of them didn’t, but one said: ‘It’s a newspaper that spoke badly about Muslims.’ So we talked about it. I was supposed to do a civics lesson on the values of the Republic, simply because it’s on the curriculum. I talked about the values of the Republic that had been threatened by the attack, I told them about laïcité [French term for “secularism”] for instance.

There are three or four Muslim kids in that class and they felt uneasy with the notion. They said: ‘Miss, if one is not supposed to discriminate [against] people because of their religion, why are we being told that what happened is our fault even though these guys are not Muslims, even though what they did puts our religion to shame?’ I let them talk because it looked like they really needed to talk. And even the kid who had said Charlie Hebdo had spoken badly about Muslims ended up saying that it wasn’t a reason to kill someone.”

Next day, my friend found out that two kids from two of her classes – boys, 14 and 15 respectively – had been taken into custody and interviewed by the police. One of them was the same kid that had said Charlie Hebdo “had spoken badly about Muslims”.

“Apparently, one kid lost it with a teacher assistant who told him off. He said Al Qaida should blow up the school. It was a similar story with the other kid. He said he agreed with the terrorists”, she explains. Because of measures dictated in the Plan Vigipirate attentats, an emergency set of instructions that come into force after terrorist attacks, school directors are obliged to report pupils for comments that could constitute “apologie du terrorisme” (“terrorism apology”: any action defending or glorifying terrorism).

“Of the two kids, one happens not to be Muslim. It’s important to make this clear, because of the implicit assumption is that he is. The other is not really the type to have political views close to jihadism. In fact, he’s not the type to have political views at all. He’s just the type to be 14”, she explains.

“I let them talk because it looked like they really needed to talk. And even the kid who had said Charlie Hebdo had spoken badly about Muslims ended up saying that it wasn’t a reason to kill someone.”

During those days, tensions in the school mirrored those of the entire nation: a 12 year-old girl was also temporarily excluded from school for saying in the playground, that all Muslim kids at school – and all Muslims in general – are friends with jihadists.

On 14 January 2015, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s education minister, spoke at the Assemblée nationale, saying that in the wake of the shooting, 200 incidents had been reported in schools across the country. “Schools are in the front line. We will punish firmly, create educational dialogue, including with parents. Even in schools were no incidents took place too much questioning came from pupils”, she declared, labelling as suspicious the very act of discussing what had taken place .

In the suburban school I’m at, after a while, my friend decided she would stop talking about the attacks unless pupils asked her questions. “I was doing a civics class with 12 year-olds. Almost two weeks had passed since the attacks, that had by now been used by politicians of all kinds. My class was about discrimination – because that’s what is on the curriculum. As soon as I said the word ‘discrimination’, a kid raised his hand and said: ‘Miss, is amalgame discrimination?’ [“amalgame” means “conflation”, in this context, confusing all Muslims with the terrorists responsible for the attacks]. This morning, the same thing happened with another class of 12 year-olds. I said ‘discrimination’ and I had a sea of raised hands in front of me, kids asking me: ‘Miss, when the security guard at the supermarket looks at me badly, is it discrimination?’ These kids feel discriminated upon. They live close to posher areas and feel that people don’t look at them in the way they look at other kids”, she says.


Paris after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. By John Perivolaris/Flickr

On January 22, Vallaud-Belkacem presented a series of measures which were to constitute “a great mobilisation for schools around the values of the Republic”. Some focused on helping kids in difficulty while others focused on laïcité, creating for instance a day of laïcité to be celebrated in schools every 9 December, in memory of  9 December 1905, the day when the law separating Church and State was voted in France. National symbols, such as the flag or the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, would be explained “in order to reestablish teachers’ authority and Republican rites”

The mandatory minute of silence left my friend sceptical: “I don’t think it was needed. To me it seemed melodramatic and really hard to explain, to 11 year-olds in particular. A well-thought response would have been better.”

She found some of the measures introduced by the Ministry of education strange: “I really take issue with the Marseillaise being played every 10 seconds. It was like that at the Republican march that followed the attacks. These are fake symbols. It’s like trying to impose something from the outside to kids who don’t understand it, ignoring the fact that there is a deep divide in the country. If we believe in the values of the Republic then we have to explain them to these kids. As for laïcité, I fear it is becoming a tool that could be perceived as islamophobic by these kids. It was once used as a tool to protect the Republic from obscurantism of country priests. Now I feel it’s used by a part of the population – not the majority – to say ‘Your religion is very nice but you can’t express it the way you want.’ It’s normal not to have religious signs in schools but you can’t make kids feel guilty because they practise a religion and believe in it.”

“As for laïcité, I fear it is becoming a tool that could be perceived as islamophobic by these kids.”

On the days following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, incidents that took place during the minute of silence in schools of the suburbs became a favourite topic for the press. For instance, on the 10th of January, Le Monde ran a story entitled: “In Saint-Denis, not all school pupils are “Charlie”. Fabien Truong, a sociologist who recently published a book about young people in the suburbs entitled Des capuches et des hommes, Trajectoires de “jeunes de banlieue” (“Hoodies and men, Trajectories of ‘young people from the suburbs’”) is keen to put the number of incidents into perspective. “We are talking of 200 incidents. There are 60 000 schools in France. There is an invisible and silent majority”, he says.

At a national level, a different process was in gear: after the great march of 11 January where many French people expressed their solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher shootings victims, as well as their support to freedom of expression, an unprecedented number of individuals were charged for apology of terrorism, among them, many young people.

Arié Alimi, a Jewish lawyer who grew up in a suburb in the North of Paris called Sarcelles, has repeatedly defended young men of North African origin, who often happen to be Muslims. Among his clients, he counts a young man from Sarcelles who was accused of apology of terrorism on account of speaking very violent antisemitic words in front of a TV camera last summer. Alimi realised the young man had been speaking in front of a camera for the first time in his life and had been keen to impress his friends, given that he hadn’t taken part in skirmishes that saw young people from Sarcelles burn  Jewish-owned shops following a banned demonstration in support for Gaza. “Jumping to the conclusion that this constitutes an apology for terrorism seemed a bit hasty”, Alimi says. To him, defending the young man was a way to try and rebuild a bridge between communities that had always lived side by side peacefully in the Sarcelles suburb.

I met Alimi in his fancy 17th arrondissement office. The offence of apology of terrorism, he explained, has recently been extracted from a law on the press, a fact that highlights a desire to punish with more force the mere fact of pronouncing words that are thougt as favourable to the notion of terrorism. “As  the notion of ‘terrorism’ is very vague, one can be prosecuted for anything. We are very close to political crime or crime of opinion, because the person who will define what terrorism and therefore apology of terrorism is, is the public prosecutor, therefore the State”, Alimi explains.

On 12 January, Christiane Taubira, France’s justice minister, sent a note to prosecutors, urging them to take tough sanctions in the face of racist or islamophobic speech, as well as apology of terrorism. “When we see what has been reported in the press – even if we need to proceed carefully, as there is often a discrepancy between the way in which a case is reported  and the actual details of the case – we are struck by the number of judicial proceedings for apology of terrorism. There is more than 100 of them, which is unheard of in France, as it is an offence that was very rarely used, and carries very heavy sentencing, with actual imprisonment [on occasion]”, Alimi says. He underlines this is a circumstantial reaction, adding that “justice is not there to send messages, but to judge an individual. It cannot become the arm of politicians.”

In a particularly unsettling case, on 28 January, an 8 year-old boy from Nice was questioned by the police for apology of terrorism. He had been saying he was “with the terrorists” at school. His lawyer took to Twitter to describe the scene. According to him, when prompted to say whether he knew what terrorism was, the boy said he didn’t. The boy was identified as a Muslim by the French National Observatory against Islamophobia.

For Fabien Truong, “to understand the defiance of some kids who weren’t keen to declare that they were ‘Charlie’, we have to look back at the last 15 years and see how the way in which we look at the suburbs has hardened. Young people from the suburbs can feel it. Think of 9/11, of the strike of the French football team in 2010, of the Merah and the Nemnouche case, of the different Charlie Hebdo cases until the disaster. Meanwhile, intellectuals like Finkielkraut or Eric Zemmour – who sold 400 000 copies of Le Suicide français have been fantasising about Islam, talking about a clash of civilisations and commenting on young people from the suburbs while they never met one.”

Truong has met many. He spent five years teaching in various schools across the Seine Saint-Denis department, on the northeast of Paris, and more time observing some of the kids who had been his pupils. His book follows three young men whom he had known to be good at school, but – he discovered – also committed petty crimes. He realised that for them and their peers, Islam was “an occasion to socialise, to meet their father and the friends of their fathers at the mosque, to establish a link inside families where many things had been left unspoken”, as well as a tool helping them to steer out of delinquency and focus on their studies. “It’s a much needed way to find some dignity”, he says.

The importance Islam holds in the suburbs, he adds, “also has to do with the failed promises of the 80’s. In 1983, a great march for equality took place in France, led by young activists from the suburbs who spoke up to tell people about another France. When you look at what the leaders of that march have become, you notice that they were failed by the political system. They were never elected. They disappeared. The political system doesn’t represent the suburbs, which has created a void. Young people from the suburbs don’t feel represented – and they aren’t.”

“When a kid tells you he’s not ‘Charlie’, he’s not saying ‘I’ll kill everybody in two months time’, he’s trying to say something in his own vocabulary, in the space where he is at. We have to stop looking at this with adult eyes”, says Truong.

“Behind the idea of an apartheid lies the idea of a voluntary secession, the idea that people chose to set themselves apart because they’re Muslim, and that’s a dangerous idea.”

Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, is known to have firmly opposed a measure that would have been really important to young people from the suburbs – the deliverance of a receipt after a stop and search, promised during François Hollande’s campaign but quickly forgotten after his election. On 20 January, during his New Year wishes to the press, Valls said that in France there was “a territorial, social and ethnic apartheid”, also speaking of “ghettos.” For Truong, this terminology, with its references to South African and Jewish history, is absurd: “It flattens reality and misrepresents it. Behind the idea of an apartheid lies the idea of a voluntary secession, the idea that people chose to set themselves apart because they’re Muslim, and that’s a dangerous idea.”

Back at the school, the two kids have returned by now and don’t really want to talk about what happened. My friend recalls a time when some of her pupils discussed whether they were ‘Charlie’ or not during a class. “I think this whole ‘Charlie’ thing is really stupid, one kid said. “Oh, you really don’t understand anything!”, a girl snapped. “Hold it, that’s the beauty of the Republic”, the teacher said, tongue in cheek, “we can all disagree!”

* “la zone”: slang term for “rough area”.

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