TRAPPES, France — All of it started when a high-school instructor warned that Islamists had taken over town. The instructor went on TV, issuing alarms from inside what he known 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 received.”
The mayor, a powerful believer within the Republic, noticed the instructor on tv and didn’t acknowledge town 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 couple of weeks this winter, the struggle pitting the mayor, Ali Rabeh, 36, towards the instructor, Didier Lemaire, 55, grew to become a media storm that, beneath the noise and accusations, boiled right down to a single, offended query that runs by the tradition wars rippling by France: Can Islam be appropriate with the ideas 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 a number of the nation’s brightest leisure and sports activities stars, like Omar Sy, the lead actor within the current Netflix hit “Lupin.” However Trappes additionally noticed about 70 of its youths depart for jihad to Syria and Iraq, the biggest contingent, per capita, from any French metropolis.
The confrontation between instructor and mayor mirrored broader forces reforging a society the place French id is being questioned greater than ever. As his positions on Islam hardened following terrorist assaults in France lately, the instructor, like many others, moved additional to the best politically.
Mr. Rabeh, the mayor, belonged to an outspoken technology, unafraid to specific its id and level out France’s failings, whose immigrant mother and father had most popular to cross unnoticed. He took as a right his function in France — and Islam’s place in it.
The struggle grew to become private, because 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 info, 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 they’d misplaced one thing vital. 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 serious conservative newsweekly, posted an article about Mr. Lemaire, who stated he was quitting due to Islamists.
Inside a couple of hours, a conservative politician eyeing the presidency tweeted her help for Mr. Lemaire and “all these hussars on the entrance line within the struggle 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 an indication of the instances. Just a few months earlier, an extremist had beheaded a middle-school instructor for exhibiting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a category on free speech. President Emmanuel Macron was now pushing a invoice to struggle Islamism whilst he pledged to nurture an “Islam of France.”
Mr. Lemaire’s phrases additionally resonated due to the outsized function in France of public schoolteachers, who’re accountable for inculcating within the younger the nation’s political values and tradition. Within the Republic’s mythology, academics are the “hussars” — the sunshine cavalry as soon as used for scouting by European armies — preventing to protect the nation’s sanctity.
Within the article, Mr. Lemaire stated he had been underneath police escort for months. Trappes’s mayor, he stated, had known 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 popular curling up with Seneca than occurring Fb, was issuing dire warnings on prime tv information reveals.
“We have now six months to a 12 months,” 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 someday.”
Mr. Lemaire arrived in Trappes, a banlieue, or suburb, within the outer orbit of Paris, 20 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 on the coronary heart of an space constructed to accommodate immigrant employees from France’s former colonies within 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 supply delicacies from sub-Saharan Africa and halal merchandise.
When the immigrants first got here, neighborhood associations funded by the federal government supplied help and companies. However by the point Mr. Lemaire arrived, social packages had been slashed. Factories had been shedding immigrant fathers and providing no jobs to their kids. One crime-ridden neighborhood grew to become often called “Chicago.”
In an interview with The New York Instances, Mr. Lemaire stated he took severely his mission as a hussar instilling France’s values within the classroom.
“The Republic has at all times been a struggle,” he stated.
However the unfold of Islamism sophisticated 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 girl wearing a protracted, unfastened costume protecting all however her face on the market.
“Earlier than, at school, she was in tightfitting denims, tightfitting sweaters, frivolously made up, actually female,” he stated.
However the instructor stated he started really greedy the Islamist menace solely after the collection of terrorist assaults in France in 2015. He took a primary step in 2018, writing a letter to Mr. Macron saying the president wanted to take Islamism extra severely.
In January, he joined a tiny political social gathering, Parti républicain solidariste, which espouses a tough line on France’s model of secularism, known as laïcité. He now favors taking women away from their mother and father, after a second warning, if the youngsters violate laïcité guidelines by placing on Muslim veils throughout college area journeys.
“We have now to guard kids 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 commenced occurring information packages himself to push again towards the portrayal of his metropolis as “misplaced.”
To Mr. Rabeh, the instructor’s feedback had been tantamount to dismissing one other technology 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 strains.
The union leaflets his father introduced residence sparked his curiosity in politics. He grew to become a believer within the promise of the Republic and its professed universalism. A person who additionally embraces his religion, Mr. Rabeh is, his supporters say, simply the form of chief to assist construct an Islam of France.
After working because the deputy mayor for youth, Mr. Rabeh received the mayoral race final 12 months in a decent vote. He has made efforts to widen entry to after-school actions and has been credited with working carefully with nationwide authorities to struggle the form of radicalization that led 70 youths from Trappes to hitch the Islamic State between 2014 and 2016.
Almost all had been killed, and plenty of grieving mother and father nonetheless surprise why their little children left.
The mother and father belonged to an immigrant technology shy about asserting its presence in France and practising its faith, stated Naila Gautier, whose mother and father got here from Tunisia and who has lived in Trappes since 1976. Their kids 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 method to the anger of the youngsters who didn’t know the historical past of their mother and father and their origins and their faith,” stated Ms. Gautier, the founding father of Les Mamans du Coeur, a gaggle that counsels households whose kids left for Syria.
The nationwide authorities say that the networks that when recruited jihadists have been weakened or have disappeared. Probably the most seen indicators of fundamentalism in Trappes have additionally diminished, just like the sporting of full-face coverings in public, which is against the law in France.
“However that doesn’t imply that fundamentalism has disappeared,” Mr. Rabeh stated. “Perhaps the social strain on Islam at this second is such that there’s a better will to cover or be discreet.”
For per week, the mayor and the instructor made dueling media appearances, till the tide appeared to show in Mr. Rabeh’s favor.
The regional schooling workplace contradicted the instructor’s description of his college, saying it had “skilled, lately, a decline in delinquent conduct and violations of laïcité.”
In remarks to the newspaper Le Monde, the native préfet, the highest civil servant representing the central authorities, praised Mr. Rabeh’s administration for its “whole 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 Instances, that he had “not obtained 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 individuals of Trappes watching from outdoors 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 bit fiery and sharp aspect — he wished to defend this inhabitants towards humiliation,” stated the Rev. Étienne Guillet, the priest of Trappes’s Roman Catholic parish. “He tried his finest. In the long run, he was a little bit weary. He was on edge.”
For Rachid Benzine — a political scientist and author whose father arrived in France from Morocco for building work — the feud lowered 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 might have had the info on his aspect, “however he’s an Arab — that’s disturbing,” Ms. Gautier, the founding father of Les Mamans du Coeur, stated. Mr. Rabeh didn’t “grovel the way in which our mother and father did,” she added.
Most stinging was the instructor’s depiction of Trappes as a “misplaced metropolis.” Through the years, the best and much proper had turned “misplaced territory of the Republic” right into a coded phrase alluding to areas with Muslim immigrants the place the federal government’s authority had supposedly collapsed due to Islamists and criminals — a reverse colonization on French soil.
The fact was far totally different, town’s leaders stated. Fundamentalism and the specter of Islamism stay, as does crime. However Trappes was principally a hard-working immigrant metropolis the place individuals of all cultures and religions blended, they stated.
On the mosque, the place 3,400 individuals come to wish on Fridays, leaders stated that speak of a misplaced metropolis belied the quiet integration of the good majority into French life. The center-class vehicles parked on the mosque on Fridays had changed the earlier technology’s “clunkers,” they stated.
“How many individuals have fully 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 kids attend after-school actions on the parish, and plenty of are enrolled on the Catholic college, Father Guillet stated.
He feared that Mr. Lemaire’s feedback would merely deepen the sensation 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 scholars on the instructor’s highschool.
“Don’t let anyone ever inform you that you just’re value nothing and that you just’re misplaced to the Republic,” he wrote.
The mayor and 5 different metropolis officers recalled that, standing simply outdoors the varsity, they distributed copies to college students arriving within 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 strain 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 federal government’s crackdown on Islamism. Hours earlier than the talk, he introduced that the instructor can be granted police safety.
That night, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the nationwide schooling minister, issued a press release 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 on the coronary heart of the operation of the Faculty of the Republic,” the minister stated.
Town officers on the college that morning instructed The Instances that no copies had been distributed inside. The regional schooling workplace and Mr. Blanquer’s workplace refused to make the varsity principal obtainable for an interview. The minister’s workplace declined to remark.
The trespassing accusations led to such an avalanche of threats towards the mayor that he, too, was put underneath police safety — a shared future, for some time, for the 2 males of Trappes, who had every misplaced one thing.
The instructor was pressured to go away the varsity 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 info 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 federal government will ultimately categorical 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 through the disaster, I instructed myself, properly, 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 youngsters of Trappes are the Republic.”
Gaëlle Fournier contributed analysis.