'Bin Laden for President!'

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The generation of French youths of North African immigrant parentage, called 'les beurs', feel lost in between their French citizenship and a distant Arab identity. In a world crisis fired on a rhetoric of hate and revenge, these youngsters have chosen their camp. Hugh Schofield reports.

"Bin Laden for President! Bin Laden for President!"

The group of young men bursts into guffaws of approval. This is Val Fourré, one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in northern France, and feelings are running high.

"Maybe I don't approve of what he did in New York, but when I saw him talking on television I thought, 'What a great guy!'" says Tarik, a 19-year-old computer trainee, loafing with his buddies in the shopping centre.

"Have you heard of the French resistance? In the Second World War? Well for us this is the same," says Abdelhaq. "Bin Laden is doing it for the Palestinians and the Muslims. The US is the father of Israel. So he has decided to hit the father, not the son."

Sentiments such as these are commonplace among young French Muslims. In their conversation, "America" and "the Jews" trade places as primary figures of hate. Many appear to believe the rumour that 4,000 Jews left the World Trade Centre an hour before it was hit.

But it is a moot question whether this would ever translate into acts, rather than words, of violence for the vast majority of the country's five million Muslims. Radical fundamentalism - integrisme in French - appears to hold little appeal.

When an old, bearded man in Arab dress harangues them about the duties of religion, the gang listens politely. But there are suppressed titters.

"Integrisme is finished. What's the point of blowing up a station in the name of Islam?" asks Tarik.

Many in France believe the lesson of the month is that the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington prove the wisdom of the country's long-standing policies towards immigration and religion.

For in fact there has been very little inter-community tension - certainly no physical attacks on Muslims of the kind that have been seen in the US, Britain and other European countries.

According to Social Affairs Minister Elisabeth Guigou, "French society has reacted with a great maturity".

If there were to have been problems, then Mantes-La-Jolie and its high-rise, high-immigration neighbourhood of Val Fourré might have expected to see them.

Some 50,000 people live in the town, which lies about 40 miles (64 kilometres) west of Paris. About half of them are of North African and black African origin and live in the Val Fourre tower blocks built in the 1970s to provide labour for nearby car plants.

The estate has a fearsome reputation for delinquency, drugs and gang violence but the last four weeks have been without incident.

For the authorities, this is a tribute to two central tenets of the national philosophy - assimilation and secularism.

The first ensures that an immigrant child receives a remorseless grounding in how to be "French". Multi-culturalism is definitely out. The second bans public displays of religion.

"The English system of multi-culturalism may be freer," says Jerome Seguy, head of cabinet for the town mayor. "But our system is more equal. Here every child should emerge at 16 with exactly the same body of education and values."

"In the same way, religion is fine. But it must be in its place - off the street."

The theory is that this translates into a society that is homogeneous and less prone than others to divisions based on religion, colour or ethnic origin. But then how do you account for the attitudes of Tarik, Abdelhaq and the gang?

They are in many ways integrated into French society - their manners, clothes, habits of speech clearly place them in France - but are fired by a fierce rush of Arab and Islamic pride.

the largest concentrations of Muslims in northern France, and feelings are running high.

"Maybe I don't approve of what he did in New York, but when I saw him talking on television I thought, 'What a great guy!'" says Tarik, a 19-year-old computer trainee, loafing with his buddies in the shopping centre.

"Have you heard of the French resistance? In the Second World War? Well for us this is the same," says Abdelhaq. "Bin Laden is doing it for the Palestinians and the Muslims. The US is the father of Israel. So he has decided to hit the father, not the son."

Sentiments such as these are commonplace among young French Muslims. In their conversation, "America" and "the Jews" trade places as primary figures of hate. Many appear to believe the rumour that 4,000 Jews left the World Trade Centre an hour before it was hit.

But it is a moot question whether this would ever translate into acts, rather than words, of violence for the vast majority of the country's five million Muslims. Radical fundamentalism - integrisme in French - appears to hold little appeal.

When an old, bearded man in Arab dress harangues them about the duties of religion, the gang listens politely. But there are suppressed titters.

"Integrisme is finished. What's the point of blowing up a station in the name of Islam?" asks Tarik.

Many in France believe the lesson of the month is that the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington prove the wisdom of the country's long-standing policies towards immigration and religion.

For in fact there has been very little inter-community tension - certainly no physical attacks on Muslims of the kind that have been seen in the US, Britain and other European countries.

According to Social Affairs Minister Elisabeth Guigou, "French society has reacted with a great maturity".

If there were to have been problems, then Mantes-La-Jolie and its high-rise, high-immigration neighbourhood of Val Fourré might have expected to see them.

Some 50,000 people live in the town, which lies about 40 miles (64 kilometres) west of Paris. About half of them are of North African and black African origin and live in the Val Fourre tower blocks built in the 1970s to provide labour for nearby car plants.

The estate has a fearsome reputation for delinquency, drugs and gang violence but the last four weeks have been without incident.

For the authorities, this is a tribute to two central tenets of the national philosophy - assimilation and secularism.

The first ensures that an immigrant child receives a remorseless grounding in how to be "French". Multi-culturalism is definitely out. The second bans public displays of religion.

"The English system of multi-culturalism may be freer," says Jerome Seguy, head of cabinet for the town mayor. "But our system is more equal. Here every child should emerge at 16 with exactly the same body of education and values."

"In the same way, religion is fine. But it must be in its place - off the street."

The theory is that this translates into a society that is homogeneous and less prone than others to divisions based on religion, colour or ethnic origin. But then how do you account for the attitudes of Tarik, Abdelhaq and the gang?

They are in many ways integrated into French society - their manners, clothes, habits of speech clearly place them in France - but are fired by a fierce rush of Arab and Islamic pride.

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