The Mayor, the Teacher and a Fight Over a ‘Misplaced Territory’ of France
TRAPPES, France — All of it started when a high-school instructor warned that Islamists had taken over the metropolis. The instructor went on TV, issuing alarms from inside what he referred to as a “misplaced metropolis” of the French Republic. In Trappes, he stated, he feared for his life.
“Trappes, it’s completed,” the instructor stated. “They’ve gained.”
The mayor, a robust believer in the Republic, noticed the instructor on tv and didn’t acknowledge the metropolis he described. He knew his metropolis, west of Paris and with a rising inhabitants of immigrants and Muslims, had issues however thought it was being falsely maligned. The mayor additionally occurred to be a Muslim.
“The reality doesn’t matter anymore,” he stated.
For a few weeks this winter, the battle pitting the mayor, Ali Rabeh, 36, in opposition to the instructor, Didier Lemaire, 55, turned a media storm that, beneath the noise and accusations, boiled all the way down to a single, indignant query that runs by means of the tradition wars rippling by means of France: Can Islam be suitable with the rules of the French Republic?
No setting was maybe stronger than Trappes to debate that query. It’s a crucible of France’s hopes, and fears. Trappes gave beginning to some of the nation’s brightest leisure and sports activities stars, like Omar Sy, the lead actor in the latest Netflix hit “Lupin.” However Trappes additionally noticed about 70 of its youths depart for jihad to Syria and Iraq, the largest contingent, per capita, from any French metropolis.
The confrontation between instructor and mayor mirrored broader forces reforging a society the place French identification is being questioned greater than ever. As his positions on Islam hardened following terrorist assaults in France in recent times, the instructor, like many others, moved additional to the proper politically.
Mr. Rabeh, the mayor, belonged to an outspoken era, unafraid to precise its identification and level out France’s failings, whose immigrant dad and mom had most well-liked to go unnoticed. He took without any consideration his function in France — and Islam’s place in it.
The battle turned private, as the instructor, saying his life was at risk, accused the mayor of calling him a racist and an Islamophobe. A lot of the political institution — pulled in several instructions by information, nationwide myths and political imperatives — sided with the instructor. Even after a lot of his story started to unravel.
The conflict left each males extra disillusioned than earlier than, each feeling that they had misplaced one thing essential. And like most cultural and political clashes in France, it ended with none satisfying decision, with none sense of coming collectively.
“You select the philosophy instructor,” Mr. Lemaire stated, “otherwise you select the mayor of Trappes.”
The Hussar of the Republic
One night in February, Le Level, a main conservative newsweekly, posted an article about Mr. Lemaire, who stated he was quitting as a result of of Islamists.
Inside a few hours, a conservative politician eyeing the presidency tweeted her help for Mr. Lemaire and “all these hussars on the entrance line in the battle for the Republic.” Subsequent, the far-right chief, Marine Le Pen, attacked “sure elected officers” for failing to guard the instructor from Islamists.
That the phrases of a just about unknown instructor resonated a lot was a signal of the instances. A number of months earlier, an extremist had beheaded a middle-school instructor for exhibiting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech. President Emmanuel Macron was now pushing a invoice to battle Islamism whilst he pledged to nurture an “Islam of France.”
Mr. Lemaire’s phrases additionally resonated as a result of of the outsized function in France of public schoolteachers, who’re answerable for inculcating in the younger the nation’s political values and tradition. In the Republic’s mythology, academics are the “hussars” — the mild cavalry as soon as used for scouting by European armies — preventing to protect the nation’s sanctity.
In the article, Mr. Lemaire stated he had been underneath police escort for months. Trappes’s mayor, he stated, had referred to as him an “Islamophobe and racist.” He stated he was ready for an “exfiltration” from deep inside “a metropolis misplaced for good.”
In a single day, the soft-spoken, longhaired instructor, who stated he most well-liked curling up with Seneca than occurring Fb, was issuing dire warnings on prime tv information exhibits.
“We now have six months to a yr,” he stated, “as a result of all these youths who’re educated with the concept that the French are their enemies, they’ll take motion sooner or later.”
Mr. Lemaire arrived in Trappes, a banlieue, or suburb, in the outer orbit of Paris, twenty years earlier. As soon as a village that grew round a millennium-old Roman Catholic parish, Trappes is now a metropolis of 32,000.
Mr. Lemaire’s highschool, La Plaine-de-Neauphle, stands at the coronary heart of an space constructed to accommodate immigrant employees from France’s former colonies in the Nineteen Seventies — a combination of rent-subsidized high-rises, enticing five-story residences and a constellation of parks. The mosque is close by. So is a market the place distributors provide delicacies from sub-Saharan Africa and halal merchandise.
When the immigrants first got here, neighborhood associations funded by the authorities offered help and companies. However by the time Mr. Lemaire arrived, social applications had been slashed. Factories had been shedding immigrant fathers and providing no jobs to their youngsters. One crime-ridden neighborhood turned often called “Chicago.”
In an interview with The New York Occasions, Mr. Lemaire stated he took critically his mission as a hussar instilling France’s values in the classroom.
“The Republic has at all times been a battle,” he stated.
However the unfold of Islamism difficult his work, he stated. His college students more and more challenged what he taught. Some, he believed, thought-about him an enemy, whereas others hid their radical beliefs.
He stated some college students lived “double” lives and described seeing a younger lady wearing a lengthy, unfastened costume overlaying all however her face at the market.
“Earlier than, at school, she was in tightfitting denims, tightfitting sweaters, calmly made up, actually female,” he stated.
However the instructor stated he started actually greedy the Islamist menace solely after the sequence of terrorist assaults in France in 2015. He took a first step in 2018, writing a letter to Mr. Macron saying the president wanted to take Islamism extra critically.
In January, he joined a tiny political social gathering, Parti républicain solidariste, which espouses a exhausting line on France’s model of secularism, referred to as laïcité. He now favors taking women away from their dad and mom, after a second warning, if the youngsters violate laïcité guidelines by placing on Muslim veils throughout college subject journeys.
“We now have to guard youngsters from this manipulation,” of getting used “as troopers or as ideologues,” he stated.
‘I See Myself In Them’
As soon as Mr. Lemaire began showing on tv, the mayor realized he wanted to reply and started occurring information applications himself to push again in opposition to the portrayal of his metropolis as “misplaced.”
To Mr. Rabeh, the instructor’s feedback had been tantamount to dismissing one other era from the banlieue.
“I see myself in them,” Mr. Rabeh stated in an interview.
He grew up in one other banlieue, close to Trappes. His father had been an immigrant from Morocco who labored 38 years on Peugeot’s meeting traces.
The union leaflets his father introduced dwelling sparked his curiosity in politics. He turned a believer in the promise of the Republic and its professed universalism. A person who additionally embraces his religion, Mr. Rabeh is, his supporters say, simply the sort of chief to assist construct an Islam of France.
After working as the deputy mayor for youth, Mr. Rabeh gained the mayoral race final yr in a tight vote. He has made efforts to widen entry to after-school actions and has been credited with working intently with nationwide authorities to battle the sort of radicalization that led 70 youths from Trappes to affix the Islamic State between 2014 and 2016.
Practically all had been killed, and many grieving dad and mom nonetheless surprise why their sons and daughters left.
The dad and mom belonged to an immigrant era shy about asserting its presence in France and training its faith, stated Naila Gautier, whose dad and mom got here from Tunisia and who has lived in Trappes since 1976. Their youngsters looked for themselves in a society the place they felt alienated, with some even becoming a member of the Islamic State, she stated.
“It gave option to the anger of the youngsters who didn’t know the historical past of their dad and mom and their origins and their faith,” stated Ms. Gautier, the founder of Les Mamans du Coeur, a group that counsels households whose youngsters left for Syria.
The nationwide authorities say that the networks that when recruited jihadists have been weakened or have disappeared. The most seen indicators of fundamentalism in Trappes have additionally diminished, like the carrying of full-face coverings in public, which is prohibited in France.
“However that doesn’t imply that fundamentalism has disappeared,” Mr. Rabeh stated. “Perhaps the social stress on Islam at this second is such that there’s a better will to cover or be discreet.”
For a week, the mayor and the instructor made dueling media appearances, till the tide appeared to show in Mr. Rabeh’s favor.
The regional training workplace contradicted the instructor’s description of his college, saying it had “skilled, in recent times, a decline in delinquent conduct and violations of laïcité.”
In remarks to the newspaper Le Monde, the native préfet, the prime civil servant representing the central authorities, praised Mr. Rabeh’s administration for its “complete cooperation” in combating Islamism. The préfet additionally refuted the instructor’s declare to having been underneath a police escort.
The instructor’s story started wobbling. He admitted to the French information media, as he did to The Occasions, that he had “not acquired specific dying threats.” He had additionally accused the mayor of calling him a “racist and Islamophobe” in an interview with a Dutch tv community.
However the community denied the mayor had stated any such factor.
‘France Actually Doesn’t Like Us’
The media duel was like a boxing match with the folks of Trappes watching from exterior the ring. Many had been annoyed that the instructor’s description of a “misplaced metropolis” appeared to stay. The mayor made a passionate protection however generally couldn’t conceal his anger.
“Ali Rabeh — being who he’s, he has a little fiery and sharp facet — he wished to defend this inhabitants in opposition to humiliation,” stated the Rev. Étienne Guillet, the priest of Trappes’s Roman Catholic parish. “He tried his finest. In the finish, he was a little weary. He was on edge.”
For Rachid Benzine — a political scientist and author whose father arrived in France from Morocco for development work — the feud diminished the complexity of Trappes into nationwide myths and biases.
“There was the hero, and there was the enemy,” stated Mr. Benzine, who has lived in Trappes for many years. “Ali Rabeh was thought-about the enemy.”
The mayor could have had the information on his facet, “however he’s an Arab — that’s disturbing,” Ms. Gautier, the founder of Les Mamans du Coeur, stated. Mr. Rabeh didn’t “grovel the means our dad and mom did,” she added.
Most stinging was the instructor’s depiction of Trappes as a “misplaced metropolis.” Over the years, the proper and far proper had turned “misplaced territory of the Republic” into a coded phrase alluding to areas with Muslim immigrants the place the authorities’s authority had supposedly collapsed as a result of of Islamists and criminals — a reverse colonization on French soil.
The actuality was far completely different, the metropolis’s leaders stated. Fundamentalism and the menace of Islamism stay, as does crime. However Trappes was largely a hard-working immigrant metropolis the place folks of all cultures and religions combined, they stated.
At the mosque, the place 3,400 folks come to hope on Fridays, leaders stated that speak of a misplaced metropolis belied the quiet integration of the nice majority into French life. The middle-class automobiles parked at the mosque on Fridays had changed the earlier era’s “clunkers,” they stated.
“How many individuals have utterly built-in and have a social place?” Tahar Benhaddya, the president of the Union of Muslims of Trappes, which manages the mosque, requested rhetorically. Most had, he stated.
The mosque and the native Catholic Church, with its 600 parishioners, maintain common conferences and exchanges.
Muslim youngsters attend after-school actions at the parish, and many are enrolled at the Catholic college, Father Guillet stated.
He feared that Mr. Lemaire’s feedback would merely deepen the feeling of alienation amongst youths who really feel “France actually doesn’t like us.”
“He additional fostered what he denounced,” Father Guillet stated.
No One Wins
Every week after the instructor’s feedback first went public, the mayor wrote a letter to the college students at the instructor’s highschool.
“Don’t let anyone ever let you know that you simply’re price nothing and that you simply’re misplaced to the Republic,” he wrote.
The mayor and 5 different metropolis officers recalled that, standing simply exterior the college, they distributed copies to college students arriving in the morning — by no means anticipating what would occur hours later.
Till that day, Mr. Macron’s ministers had remained quiet however they had been dealing with intense stress from conservative politicians and media shops to help the instructor.
Because it occurred, a televised debate was scheduled that night between Ms. Le Pen and Gérald Darmanin, the inside minister main the authorities’s crackdown on Islamism. Hours earlier than the debate, he introduced that the instructor could be granted police safety.
That night, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the nationwide training minister, issued a assertion supporting the instructor. He additionally accused the mayor of trespassing into the highschool to distribute tracts — the letter — that morning. “Political and non secular neutrality is at the coronary heart of the operation of the Faculty of the Republic,” the minister stated.
The metropolis officers at the college that morning instructed The Occasions that no copies had been distributed inside. The regional training workplace and Mr. Blanquer’s workplace refused to make the college principal accessible for an interview. The minister’s workplace declined to remark.
The trespassing accusations led to such an avalanche of threats in opposition to the mayor that he, too, was put underneath police safety — a shared future, for a whereas, for the two males of Trappes, who had every misplaced one thing.
The instructor was pressured to depart the college the place he had taught for 20 years and, regardless of his criticisms of Trappes, stated “you actually really feel you’re on a mission.” He stated he ought to have been extra cautious with the information and had made “many errors,” however caught by his interpretation of Trappes as “misplaced.”
His phrases, he stated, had led to a “clarification of positions as we speak in France.”
The mayor questioned the very Republic that when impressed him. He had believed that “the individuals who embody the Republic will come, the authorities will ultimately specific its solidarity with me.”
“Shocked,” he stated, “I discover that’s not the case.”
He declined his fearful father’s request to resign.
“For a second throughout the disaster, I instructed myself, nicely, if that is the Republic, I’m abandoning the Republic, simply because it’s deserted me,” Mr. Rabeh stated. “However the reality is that they’re not the Republic. The children of Trappes are the Republic.”
Gaëlle Fournier contributed analysis.
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