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How a City in France Became a Mecca for Islamists

A visit to Roubaix, home of alleged Jewish Museum killer Mehdi Nemmouche. Second of a five-part series on anti-Semitism in France.

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French National Police Intervention Group arrest a suspected radical Islamist group member in Roubaix, April 2012. (Photoillustration byErik Mace for Tablet Magazine. Original photo: DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images.)
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This is the second of a five-part series, France’s Toxic Hate. Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.

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Once upon a time, in the extreme north of France, a few steps away from the Belgian border, the town of Roubaix was called “the city of the thousand chimneys” in reference to the many textile factories that gave it its distinctive shape and energy. Eager to work, ready to fight—“The mecca of socialism” was its other nickname; the town remained a bastion of the left from the mid-19th century to the last municipal elections—workers from all over Europe would populate the red-brick streets of its neighborhoods and the many guinguettes for which the town was otherwise known. Today, as the broken, dirty streets that I visited last week indicate, Roubaix is devastated by a 40-percent unemployment rate. It maintains an astonishing crime rate of 84 incidents per 1,000 inhabitants and is classified by the government as the largest “high-priority security zone” in the country. This is where Mehdi Nemouche, the alleged Brussels Jewish museum killer, was born and partly raised.

Place Faidherbe is a double row of unkempt windows and crooked walls supporting the two-story houses of the miserable neighborhood of Le Pile. On the other side of the street, in front of a tepid grocery store—and an empty storefront that was once a Muslim tea room and is now just a ghostly window blind shop—stand three grayish off-white trailers in a semi-circle. From one of the trailers, a heavyset blonde woman sells sandwiches and lukewarm beers to two middle-aged men, who then sit on a stone bench to eat and drink and watch the slow traffic of passing cars. A young Arabic man appearing at my side and crossing the street calls the two men “bums” as he passes. “What are these bums doing here?” he says aloud for no one in particular. The bums in question are the only Caucasian people in sight. Around them, women of all ages go about their business, wearing, all of them, the heavy dark cotton dresses and the black scarf of observant Salafists.

France's Toxic Hate

Behind me is La Condition Publique—the Public Condition, the one trendy restaurant/art gallery of Le Pile—the name is a play on the time when wool was conditioned between the thick red brick walls of the ruined factory where the restaurant makes its home. The establishment also houses the Abu Bakr mosque, one of the largest Muslim buildings in Roubaix. Predictably enough, there’s a conflict going on between the two neighbors, and it’s not clear whether or how long the wine-seller is likely to be around. Four years ago, in the brand-new mall of the nearby urban business zone where clothing stores sell major French brands at discounted prices, a similar fight erupted when the Quick Burger fast-food restaurant went exclusively halal, and the socialist mayor René Vandierendonck, who for years had encouraged what he called the “cultural diversity” of Roubaix, felt obliged to go against the Muslims, in the name of the non-discriminatory politics he had previously argued for: An exclusively halal fast-food restaurant, he believed, would de facto discriminate against the rest of the regular customers, secular and otherwise, and therefore should not be allowed in a public commercial center.

Unsurprisingly, he hit a wall. That wall took the shape of a “Committee of the Mosques”—a lobby set up for the occasion, gathering five of the six mosques of the city. According to political researcher Gilles Kepel, the structure of that committee was openly inspired by the one of the same name that had burned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989 in Bradford, England—a town with which, incidentally, Roubaix is, to this day, officially twinned. So, the mayor got scared, stepped back, withdrew his complaint, and ended up celebrating the end of Ramadan in the Quick halal fast-food restaurant along with the distinguished members of the committee that he had intended to overcome.

In between, the polemics in Roubaix became so fierce as to attract national attention. From Paris, Marine Le Pen stepped in, denouncing in the “Quick Burger case” of Roubaix an example of what she called “the forced Islamisation of France.” A socialist mayor defended by the leader of the extreme right-wing party was certainly a new moment in the politics of cultural diversity, and Le Pen’s National Front won a few more points in the polls, as a result. (Today, a “compromise” has been reached: The Quick Restaurant remains exclusively halal, but it doesn’t publicize that fact to avoid alienating non-Muslim customers. As for what fate is in store for La Condition Publique, nobody knows.)

One could argue, somewhat sarcastically, that what had started in England at the end of the 20th century with the Rushdie case as a serious issue involving blasphemy and the freedom of literary imagination was followed in France in 2010 by the stupid question of what kind of meat bad hamburgers should be made of. Was Islam looking bad or was France demonstrating, one more time, its neurotic sensitivity to identity issues? It was perhaps with the latter question in mind—or with an all too certain answer to it—that Alissa Rubin of the New York Times came here one year ago to report—and managed to spectacularly miss what was going on in the city.

“When you look at the demographics, in two or three generations, all of France will be like Roubaix,” Bertrand Moreau, the chief spokesman for the mayor’s office at the time, told Rubin. To judge from her article, titled, “A French Town Bridges the Gap Between Muslims and Non-Muslims,” she was more than convinced. “Roubaix’s multicultural approach,” she enthusiastically wrote, has “diminished the ethnic and sectarian tensions that have afflicted other parts of France.” It has “blurred the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Today, she wrote, “the city stands out for its efforts to take discreet but pointed steps to promote an active Muslim community.” Yet a look at the streets of Roubaix shows very little blurring of differences: Rather, it shows the elimination of nearly all cultural signifiers and actual people who are not Muslims. The last synagogue was destroyed here in 2000, and since then a Jewish presence in Roubaix, once the capital of the global shmata business, is unheard of.

Anti-Jewish prejudices, on the other hand, are alive and well in Roubaix. According to the French historian and researcher Michel Wieviorka, whose 2005 book La Tentation anti-Semite (The Anti-Semitic Temptation) presents the result of an investigation he conducted with the young Roubaisiens of Arabic/Muslim background, found that a majority—like, in fact, the majority of that same religious-ethnic and age group in the country at large—sees Jews, Israelis, and Americans as virtually of the same hateful species: They want to control the media, they support Israel, they make war, they discriminate against Arabs—and, more generally, are behind “the global order,” in which the inhabitants of Roubaix are very definitely the losers. (“Jews control everything in the French government” as Sarah, a Parisian young woman interviewed in the recent anti-Israel demonstrations in Paris put it bluntly to a reporter.)

***

In the early 1980s, as an idealistic and not-so-confident aspiring young writer, I found a job in a counter-cultural magazine called Sans Frontière. Without Borders, its name in English, was a twice-monthly journal defending non-discriminatory policies for migrant workers and dedicated itself to fighting racism. Its managing team was mostly composed of left-wing political refugees from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, and its only two French-born journalists were, significantly, Jews—a Sephardic girl and me.

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How a City in France Became a Mecca for Islamists

A visit to Roubaix, home of alleged Jewish Museum killer Mehdi Nemmouche. Second of a five-part series on anti-Semitism in France.