The Mayor, the Teacher and a Fight over a ‘Lost Territory’ of France

TRAPPES, France — It all started when a high-school instructor warned that Islamists had taken over the metropolis. The instructor went on TV, issuing alarms from inside what he referred to as a “lost city” of the French Republic. In Trappes, he mentioned, he feared for his life.

“Trappes, it’s finished,” the instructor mentioned. “They’ve won.”

The mayor, a sturdy believer in the Republic, noticed the instructor on tv and didn’t acknowledge the metropolis he described. He knew his metropolis, south 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 truth doesn’t matter anymore,” he mentioned.

For a few weeks this winter, the struggle pitting the mayor, Ali Rabeh, 36, towards the instructor, Didier Lemaire, 55, turned a media storm that, beneath the noise and accusations, boiled right down to a single, indignant query that runs by the tradition wars rippling by France: Can Islam be suitable with the ideas of the French Republic?

No setting was maybe stronger than Trappes to debate that query. It is a crucible of France’s hopes, and fears. Trappes gave beginning to some of the nation’s brightest leisure and sports activities stars, like Omar Sy, the lead actor in the current Netflix hit “Lupin.” But Trappes additionally noticed about 70 of its youths go away for jihad to Syria and Iraq, the largest 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 proper politically.

Mr. Rabeh, the mayor, belonged to an outspoken era, unafraid to specific its id and level out France’s failings, whose immigrant dad and mom had most popular to cross unnoticed. He took as a right his function in France — and Islam’s place in it.

The struggle turned private, as the instructor, saying his life was at risk, accused the mayor of calling him a racist and an Islamophobe. Much of the political institution — pulled in numerous instructions by details, 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 essential. And like most cultural and political clashes in France, it ended with none satisfying decision, with none sense of coming collectively.

“You choose the philosophy teacher,” Mr. Lemaire mentioned, “or you choose the mayor of Trappes.”

The Hussar of the Republic

Didier Lemaire, a philosophy instructor, warned that Islamists had taken over Trappes. Credit…Cyril Zannettacci for The New York Times

One night in February, Le Point, a main conservative newsweekly, posted an article about Mr. Lemaire, who mentioned he was quitting as a result of of Islamists.

Within a few hours, a conservative politician eyeing the presidency tweeted her help for Mr. Lemaire and “all those hussars on the front line in the fight for the Republic.” Next, the far-right chief, Marine Le Pen, attacked “certain elected officials” for failing to guard the instructor from Islamists.

That the phrases of a just about unknown instructor resonated a lot was a signal of the instances. A number of months earlier, an extremist had beheaded a middle-school instructor for displaying caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class 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 as a result of of the outsized function in France of public schoolteachers, who’re liable for inculcating in the younger the nation’s political values and tradition. In the Republic’s mythology, lecturers are the “hussars” — the mild cavalry as soon as used for scouting by European armies — combating to protect the nation’s sanctity.

In the article, Mr. Lemaire mentioned he had been beneath police escort for months. Trappes’s mayor, he mentioned, had referred to as him an “Islamophobe and racist.” He mentioned he was ready for an “exfiltration” from deep inside “a city lost for good.”

Overnight, the soft-spoken, longhaired instructor, who mentioned he most popular curling up with Seneca than occurring Facebook, was issuing dire warnings on prime tv information exhibits.

“We have six months to a year,” he mentioned, “because all these youths who are educated with the idea that the French are their enemies, they’ll take action one day.”

Mr. Lemaire arrived in Trappes, a banlieue, or suburb, in the outer orbit of Paris, 20 years earlier. Once 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 at the coronary heart of an space constructed to accommodate immigrant staff from France’s former colonies in the 1970s — 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 provide delicacies from sub-Saharan Africa and halal merchandise.

La Plaine-de-Neauphle, the highschool the place Mr. Lemaire taught.Credit…Cyril Zannettacci for The New York Times

When the immigrants first got here, group associations funded by the authorities offered help and companies. But by the time Mr. Lemaire arrived, social applications had been slashed. Factories have been shedding immigrant fathers and providing no jobs to their kids. One crime-ridden neighborhood turned often called “Chicago.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Lemaire mentioned he took severely his mission as a hussar instilling France’s values in the classroom.

“The Republic has always been a fight,” he mentioned.

But the unfold of Islamism difficult his work, he mentioned. His college students more and more challenged what he taught. Some, he believed, thought of him an enemy, whereas others hid their radical beliefs.

He mentioned some college students lived “double” lives and described seeing a younger girl wearing a lengthy, unfastened gown overlaying all however her face at the market.

“Before, in class, she used to be in tightfitting jeans, tightfitting sweaters, lightly made up, really feminine,” he mentioned.

But the instructor mentioned he started actually greedy the Islamist menace solely after the sequence of terrorist assaults in France in 2015. He took a first 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 onerous line on France’s model of secularism, referred to as laïcité. He now favors taking women away from their dad and mom, after a second warning, if the kids violate laïcité guidelines by placing on Muslim veils throughout faculty discipline journeys.

“We have to protect children from this manipulation,” of getting used “as soldiers or as ideologues,” he mentioned.

‘I See Myself In Them’

Ali Rabeh, the mayor of Trappes, at his workplace in City Hall. Credit…Cyril Zannettacci for The New York Times

Once Mr. Lemaire began showing on tv, the mayor realized he wanted to reply and started occurring information applications himself to push again towards the portrayal of his metropolis as “lost.”

To Mr. Rabeh, the instructor’s feedback have been tantamount to dismissing one other era from the banlieue.

“I see myself in them,” Mr. Rabeh mentioned 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 turned a believer in 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 as the deputy mayor for youth, Mr. Rabeh received the mayoral race final 12 months in a tight 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.

Nearly all have been killed, and many grieving dad and mom nonetheless surprise why their sons and daughters left.

The dad and mom belonged to an immigrant era shy about asserting its presence in France and training its faith, mentioned Naila Gautier, whose dad and mom 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 mentioned.

“It gave way to the anger of the children who didn’t know the history of their parents and their origins and their religion,” mentioned Ms. Gautier, the founder of Les Mamans du Coeur, a group 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. The most seen indicators of fundamentalism in Trappes have additionally diminished, like the sporting of full-face coverings in public, which is against the law in France.

“But that doesn’t mean that fundamentalism has disappeared,” Mr. Rabeh mentioned. “Maybe the social pressure on Islam at this moment is such that there’s a greater will to hide or be discreet.”

For a week, the mayor and the instructor made dueling media appearances, till the tide appeared to show in Mr. Rabeh’s favor.

The regional training workplace contradicted the instructor’s description of his faculty, saying it had “experienced, in recent years, a decline in antisocial behavior and violations of laïcité.”

In remarks to the newspaper Le Monde, the native préfet, the prime civil servant representing the central authorities, praised Mr. Rabeh’s administration for its “total cooperation” in combating Islamism. The préfet additionally refuted the instructor’s declare to having been beneath a police escort.

The instructor’s story started wobbling. He admitted to the French information media, as he did to The Times, that he had “not received explicit death threats.” He had additionally accused the mayor of calling him a “racist and Islamophobe” in an interview with a Dutch tv community.

But the community denied the mayor had mentioned any such factor.

‘France Really Doesn’t Like Us’

A market in Trappes. Credit…Cyril Zannettacci for The New York Times

The media duel was like a boxing match with the folks of Trappes watching from outdoors the ring. Many have been annoyed that the instructor’s description of a “lost city” appeared to stay. The mayor made a passionate protection however typically couldn’t conceal his anger.

“Ali Rabeh — being who he is, he has a little fiery and sharp side — he wanted to defend this population against humiliation,” mentioned the Rev. Étienne Guillet, the priest of Trappes’s Roman Catholic parish. “He tried his best. In the end, he was a little weary. He was on edge.”

For Rachid Benzine — a political scientist and author whose father arrived in France from Morocco for development work — the feud diminished the complexity of Trappes into nationwide myths and biases.

“There was the hero, and there was the enemy,” mentioned Mr. Benzine, who has lived in Trappes for many years. “Ali Rabeh was considered the enemy.”

The mayor might have had the details on his aspect, “but he’s an Arab — that’s disturbing,” Ms. Gautier, the founder of Les Mamans du Coeur, mentioned. Mr. Rabeh didn’t “grovel the way our parents did,” she added.

Most stinging was the instructor’s depiction of Trappes as a “lost city.” Over the years, the proper and far proper had turned “lost territory of the Republic” into a coded phrase alluding to areas with Muslim immigrants the place the authorities’s authority had supposedly collapsed as a result of of Islamists and criminals — a reverse colonization on French soil.

The actuality was far totally different, the metropolis’s leaders mentioned. Fundamentalism and the menace of Islamism stay, as does crime. But Trappes was principally a hard-working immigrant metropolis the place folks of all cultures and religions blended, they mentioned.

At the mosque, the place three,400 folks come to hope on Fridays, leaders mentioned that speak of a misplaced metropolis belied the quiet integration of the nice majority into French life. The middle-class vehicles parked at the mosque on Fridays had changed the earlier era’s “clunkers,” they mentioned.

“How many people have completely integrated and have a social position?” Tahar Benhaddya, the president of the Union of Muslims of Trappes, which manages the mosque, requested rhetorically. Most had, he mentioned.

The mosque and the native Catholic Church, with its 600 parishioners, maintain common conferences and exchanges.

Muslim kids attend after-school actions at the parish, and many are enrolled at the Catholic faculty, Father Guillet mentioned.

He feared that Mr. Lemaire’s feedback would merely deepen the feeling of alienation amongst youths who really feel “France really doesn’t like us.”

“He further fostered what he denounced,” Father Guillet mentioned.

No One Wins

High faculty college students  in the La Plaine-de-Neauphle neighborhood. Credit…Cyril Zannettacci for The New York Times

Per week after the instructor’s feedback first went public, the mayor wrote a letter to the college students at the instructor’s highschool.

“Don’t let anybody ever tell you that you’re worth nothing and that you’re lost to the Republic,” he wrote.

The mayor and 5 different metropolis officers recalled that, standing simply outdoors the faculty, they distributed copies to college students arriving in the morning — by no means anticipating what would occur hours later.

Until that day, Mr. Macron’s ministers had remained quiet however they have been going through intense strain from conservative politicians and media retailers to help the instructor.

As it occurred, a televised debate was scheduled that night between Ms. Le Pen and Gérald Darmanin, the inside minister main the authorities’s crackdown on Islamism. Hours earlier than the debate, he introduced that the instructor can be granted police safety.

That night, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the nationwide training minister, issued a assertion supporting the instructor. He additionally accused the mayor of trespassing into the highschool to distribute tracts — the letter — that morning. “Political and religious neutrality is at the heart of the operation of the School of the Republic,” the minister mentioned.

The metropolis officers at the faculty that morning advised The Times that no copies have been distributed inside. The regional training workplace and Mr. Blanquer’s workplace refused to make the faculty principal accessible 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 beneath police safety — a shared future, for a whereas, for the two males of Trappes, who had every misplaced one thing.

The instructor was compelled to depart the faculty the place he had taught for 20 years and, regardless of his criticisms of Trappes, mentioned “you really feel you’re on a mission.” He mentioned he ought to have been extra cautious with the details and had made “many mistakes,” however caught by his interpretation of Trappes as “lost.”

His phrases, he mentioned, had led to a “clarification of positions today in France.”

The mayor questioned the very Republic that when impressed him. He had believed that “the people who embody the Republic will come, the government will eventually express its solidarity with me.”

“Stunned,” he mentioned, “I find that’s not the case.”

He declined his fearful father’s request to resign.

“For a moment during the crisis, I told myself, well, if this is the Republic, I’m abandoning the Republic, just as it’s abandoned me,” Mr. Rabeh mentioned. “But the truth is they’re not the Republic. The kids of Trappes are the Republic.”

A statue in Trappes of the socialist chief Jean Jaurès, who was assassinated in 1914. The quote on the wall reads: “I’ve never separated the Republic from the idea of social justice, without which it is nothing but a word.”Credit…Cyril Zannettacci for The New York Times

Gaëlle Fournier contributed analysis.