Professor Gilles Kepel, who has documented over a quarter of a century the rise of radical Islam in the banlieues, is angry. France, he says, has been struck more brutally than other western countries by homegrown jihadis because the country’s elites chose to ignore the legitimate demands of its large population of north African descent. Sitting in his claustrophobic office at Sciences Po, Paris, he sighs: “We’ve lost at least 20 years.”
Kepel traces the causes of the Paris attacks of November 13 — in which extremists killed 130 people in a concert venue, bars and restaurants, and the murder a year ago of staff at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, police officers, staff and shoppers at a Jewish supermarket — back to 1983. This is when dozens of young men of north African origin staged a protest march from Marseille to Paris following a series of racist acts.
When François Mitterrand, then president, received them at the Elysée Palace, their number had swollen to 100,000. They wanted equality and a bigger role in democratic life. But instead of facilitating their political integration, the Socialist leader focused only on the question of racism. “We could have had a generation of role models who would have led the way,” Kepel tells me.
Another opportunity was missed after riots in the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005. Sparked by the accidental deaths of two teenagers as they hid from police in a power station, troubles flared when officers mistakenly fired tear gas into the local mosque. French elites refused to see that religion had been the catalyst for the riots, and the reason they spread to other regions, writes Kepel.