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Jihadist arrests deepen divisions in French town

Lunel train station
Lunel train station Brenna Daldorph / FRANCE 24

When six of its youths died on battlefields in Syria, Lunel was suddenly known internationally as France's No. 1 "jihadist town". Locals say the media frenzy has deepened town divisions and that it will take years to rebuild its shattered image.


in Lunel, France

In October 2014, news broke that three young men from Lunel, a southern French town with a population of just 26,000, died in Syria. In December, two more were reported dead out of an estimated 20 Lunellois who had gone there to fight. In January, another one was reported killed.

On December 12, Lahoucine Goumri, president of the Union of Muslims of Lunel, which runs El Baraka Mosque, gave an interview to local paper Midi Libre, denying the mosque’s involvement in the radicalisation process without condemning those who left.

France "one of the European countries that sent the most fighters to Syria" - FRANCE 24 reporter Christopher Moore

'Caught up in the madness of going to Syria'

“It’s their choice. I can’t judge them. Only God can,” he said, adding that he was frustrated by the pressure to denounce Lunel’s departees when they represented only a fraction of overall departures for Syria. “Not all of the Lunellois are caught up in the madness of going to Syria.”

Lunel’s 20 departees are part of 1,100 people who have left France for Syria, according to figures released the French Ministry of the Interior in November 2014, making France the European country with the largest number of fighters in Iraq and Syria. In the wake of the deadly attacks carried out in January by the Kouachi brothers and Amédy Coulibaly, French authorities are under increased pressure to both stop young French men and women from joining the Islamic State organisation and make sure that they won’t return to carry out more attacks on French soil. In January, authorities arrested five alleged members of a recruiting network operating in Lunel. For them, Lunel’s 20 is 20 too many.

In the wake of the arrests, the quiet town has been propelled into the spotlight as the epitome of France’s malaise with Islam and its disenfranchised youth, attracting scores of journalists, including from the New York Times, and providing photo ops for French politicians from all sides. On the other side of the fence, Lunellois fear that the attention has permanently damaged the reputation of a town with a 25 percent unemployment rate and deeply-entrenched divisions that paved the way for jihadist recruiters, leaving local politicians and citizens struggling to find a solution.

Asked how long he thought it would take for Lunel to get over the trauma, former mayor Claude Barral said ten years. “If politicians don’t respond intelligently, twenty,” he added.

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“They were just like any of the other kids”

Tahar Akermi, a local educator who tries to build bridges between communities, is a well-known figure in Lunel. Last year, he was given a medal by the French National Assembly for his work over the past 25 years. At one time or another, all of the Lunellois who died in Syria participated in activities that he organised, mostly at youth club MJC.

“For me, they were just like any of the other local kids. It was horrible to see their faces flashing across the TV. I cried when I saw pictures of their bodies on the battlefield,” he said. “We failed those kids.”

Akermi struggles to orientate Lunel’s at-risk young people, helping them to channel frustrations into sports and other activities. Lunel used to be known for its heroin culture until a clean-up campaign several years ago. Lunel’s evangelist church also has rising membership. For Akermi, jihad is just the newest option for lost souls.

“You can’t convince me those kids aren’t victims. They were convinced to go die by recruiters who are still sitting here safe and sound, far from the battlefield,” he said. “They were made vulnerable by the socio-economic divisions in the town.”

Locals are split by contrasting visions of the departees. Some, like Akermi, think they are victims of savvy recruiters. Some think they are terrorists. As one resident told FRANCE 24, “I’d rather see them there than causing problems here.” And some believe they are heroes.

“A lot of the young people here don’t trust the government or anything they say,” said Akermi. “Some people here truly believe the departees went to do humanitarian work. And others do believe that going there to fight is a noble thing to do.”

Decades of socio-economic woes

Lunel is the fourth largest city in the Hérault region, which saw a 1.5 percent increase in poverty between 2008 and 2011 according to Insee, France's national institute for statistics. Most of the Lunellois who do work commute to nearby larger towns of Montpellier or Nîmes, a dynamic that has effectively weakened the city’s economic vibrancy.

Several traders who have worked at the market for upwards of three decades said business had taken a plunge in recent years. A man who rents to tourists (Lunel is only 12 km from the Mediterranean), told FRANCE 24 that he has seen a huge decrease in interest in the wake of the town’s bad press.

Economic woes are certainly a factor in the town’s malaise. But as in other places in France, the legacy of immigration and wavering integration policy has resulted in enduring tensions between some locals and second and third generation immigrants, many of whom feel like they were never welcomed into the fabric of French society.

Of all the immigrants who settled in Lunel from the 1960s to the 1980s, most hail from Morocco. They first settled in the town centre. Later waves moved to the city’s boundaries in newly-built subsidized housing known as HLM. Altogether, people of North African descent make up one-fourth to one-third of the town’s population, according to city officials, and most live in neighbourhoods primarily inhabited by those of the same background. This urban makeup reflects the reality of many French towns, especially in the south, and results in enduring tensions.

“Why do we still call people who were born and raised here ‘Arabs’? And why do those kids call whites the ‘French’? This 'us and them' dynamic is at the heart of the community problems,” Akermi said.

This divisions are also fertile ground for the National Front (FN), France’s extreme right party, which recent polls project will win as many as a third of the votes in the upcoming departmental elections. Last spring, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party won five of Lunel’s city council spots. Two FN candidates are running in departmental elections in late March. If they win, the party is well-positioned to win the mayor’s race in 2020.

“You can’t reduce all of Lunel’s political activity to four jihadists and a few FN candidates,” former mayor Barral warned. “The grand majority aren’t at either extreme.”

In an attempt to discourage the population from voting FN or heading off to Syria, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve joined Socialist MP Patrick Vignal in February to announce a plan for new development in the town centre. Other projects include the development of local transport and increased police presence. But locals are sceptical, saying its jobs they need, not money.

Local politician Zoubida Benali Moreau fears that even the jobs created won’t go to the Lunellois.

“The local population does not have the education or training for many of these jobs,” Moreau said.

Inside the mosque

Even if they are successful, these economic initiatives will do little to heal the wounds of a Muslim community that’s been in the spotlight like never before. After Gourmi’s initial failure to condemn the departees (he later rescinded his original statement), journalists haunted El Baraka for days. A local resident told FRANCE 24 that his family and many other congregants stopped attending services. Local animosity towards the mosque increased. In a vicious but unavoidable cycle, the town’s close-knit Muslim community withdrew, wary of journalists digging for information about the departed.

“Lunel is like a village. You have to remember that everyone knows each other. They want to respect the grieving families,” one Muslim resident told FRANCE 24.

Part of the unease comes from the fact that although Goumri’s mandate ended on January 15, the new board has yet failed to officially condemn or address the reason why some of its youth left for jihad.

FRANCE 24 requested to speak to the new board through both the spokesman and the president. Both requests were turned town, with new President Belhaj saying he was “tired and sick”.

There has been endless speculation about what happens within the walls of the palm-fronted mosque, which has a capacity of about 1,500. The Moroccan imam, who speaks little French, has been under widespread scrutiny, with the local prefect even saying: “We’d like an imam who speaks French.” Akermi, who recently helped the imam to enrol in French classes, said he was a “nice guy” who “loves France”, but who had suffered from the media exposure.

At least three well-informed sources told FRANCE 24 that the problem stems from a very small minority of worshippers, a group of roughly 20 hardliners.

In October, after the first deaths were reported, Farid Darrouf, imam of Montpellier’s main mosque, visited the Lunel congregation and was rejected, “aggressively”, by a group of young radicals. Since then, he has expressed growing concern about Lunel. “I recently learned that a small group of radical worshippers are boycotting the imam and pray in their own little group when they come to the mosque,” Darrouf told FRANCE 24.

Town councillor Barral recently went to the mosque parking lot to distribute campaign flyers, something he does for each election cycle. This time, he was surprised by the response.“When I held out pamphlets to some of the young men, they jumped back as if they didn’t want to touch them. I asked “What about the Republic?” and they said “We don’t vote,’’ Barral said. “They are going to be first to suffer when the FN wins.”

Solutions are with the Lunellois

On February 25, Vignal brought together a panel on the theme of "Islam and Fraternity" in neighbouring St. Christol. Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Grande Mosquée of Paris, headed the discussion, alongside Vignal and (peculiarly) the local Free Masons. Though Lunel was the focus of the discussion, there were few Lunellois. The mayor was noticeably absent. The new board of the mosque attended, but slipped out quickly after. No concrete plans of action were discussed.

There aren't a lot of people who believe in the top-down solution. Years of experience have taught Akermi to rely on individuals in the community rather than on the state.

“The state committed a great error in excluding these populations and, in life, you can’t always make good your errors,” he said. “I think it will depend on parents and adults in the community. We can’t be lax with our children.”

Some residents are responding to the trauma in positive ways. Akermi is helping several young musicians channel their reactions to the events into songs. Other locals are dreaming up short films and festivals, hoping to ride Lunel’s negative media wave to promote positivity.

“It’s absolutely tragic what happened to those kids, but there’s a proverb that says someone’s distress can lead to good fortune for others,” Akermi said. “We’re hoping to use this tragedy to turn things around."

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