In France, Young Muslims Often Straddle Two Worlds

Mar 3, 2015
Originally published on March 5, 2015 9:40 am

The French, with their national motto of "liberty, equality, fraternity," are so against religious and ethnic divisions that the government doesn't even collect this kind of data on its citizens, but it's believed that nearly 40 percent of the country's 7 million Muslims live in and around Paris.

Many live in poor suburban communities known as banlieues., and the residents of these communities have felt increased scrutiny since three young Muslim men, each born and raised in France, killed 17 people in January's terror attacks in Paris.

The bustling Gare du Nord train station marks the frontier between central Paris and the banlieues, says Andrew Hussey, a British historian who has written about the tensions between France and its black and Arab minorities.

It's the place where the suburbs of northern Paris — which consist of mainly immigrant, minority populations, who are often very poor — come into contact with the relative affluence and comfort of the city center.

"The thing about the Gare du Nord is that that's where you feel — the kids from the banlieue feel excluded," he says, "They come here, and like it's a frontier zone between Paris over there — which is very well-heeled and very rich and very beautiful, and over there [the suburbs] — where they're sort of, you know, cast out into this world that's not quite connected to the center of France."

Ismael Medjdoub is one of these "kids from the banlieue" who straddles these two worlds. Medjdoub, 21, a third-generation Frenchman of Algerian descent, spends a lot of time on the subway getting to and from work and school — up to four hours every day, including Sunday.

Medjdoub is a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, and would like to get an apartment in the city, but he says his district number — it's like an American ZIP code — is hurting his chances.

Make no mistake, Medjdoub says that he's proud to be from a banlieue — his town, called Tremblay en France, is next to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport — but that he knows people look down on those communities.

"Every time that I say to someone I'm coming from suburbs, they have some pity for me that I cannot understand," he says.

He recalls an incident during his first year studying history at the Sorbonne. He had gone to see his professor, to apologize for a delay in turning in his schoolwork.

"He answered to me: 'Don't worry, you are coming from suburbs, so I know what you are feeling,' " Medjdoub says. "And I was — 'What? I mean, come on guy, I am living in a big house with two cats! So you see it's not the image that you are making of suburbs.' "

We arrive at the small, quiet station in Tremblay en France, a world apart from Paris. We meet Ismael's mother, Fatihah Medjdoub, at a nearby cafe.

As she adjusts the soft, blue-green jersey of her headscarf at the edges of her ears, Fatihah tells me that her family emigrated from Algeria, and that she was born in France in 1963. But she says times are different for her son's generation.

"Young people today claim to be more Muslim than they did during my time. We practiced an Islam that was much more ... I can't find the exact word, but we practiced Islam privately, at home," she says. "Today's generation practices an Islam that they seek to understand, and that can lead to prejudices against them."

Ismael agrees with his mother, and takes it one step further.

"Especially with the young generation — we are telling them that you are not able to wear the veil, and because they are denied in their identity, the only way they have to answer to the situation is not simply wearing a hijab (headscarf) but a niqab," he says, referring to an even more obscuring head covering that leaves only the eyes visible.

Despite these challenges, Ismael is adamant: "The fact is that I'm French. ... I will never deny my nationality, and I am very proud of it."

He knows that life would be very different if his family had stayed in Algeria.

"I'm just grateful to my country," he says, "and I want to contribute to make it better."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On our program this week, we're hearing from Muslims in Western Europe. Our colleague Audie Cornish is traveling to countries there with the largest Muslim populations. We heard from her yesterday in Britain. Today Audie sends us this report from Paris where tensions remain high after January's terror attacks.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On our way out of London there were British Muslims who said in some ways, they have it pretty good, given Britain's approach to multiculturalism. One woman actually said French Muslims have it worse. And we wanted to know, in what way?

We took the Eurostar train to Paris to learn more, and we arrived here at the Gare du Nord or Paris North Train Station. That's where we meet with a British historian who has made the same journey, Andrew Hussey. His last book looked at the tensions between France and its black and Arab minorities. We thought he could give us some context. He says everything you need to know is actually here at the station.

ANDREW HUSSEY: It marks the frontier between the center of Paris where people live, you know, in reasonably comfortable conditions, and what you might call the banlieues, which are the suburbs outside of Paris. And it's the place where the two worlds come together - where the suburbs of northern Paris, which are mainly immigrant minority populations - and often very, very poor, it has to be said as well - come into contact. You can see just behind us the Eurostar to London, the trains to Brussels and Amsterdam and central Paris where you got well-heeled business travelers and so on. So you got two worlds that actually don't always connect or often connect in conflict in different ways.

CORNISH: And the station itself, you said, is actually structured the same way, right? It's multiple floors.

HUSSEY: Yeah. There's stations on several different levels. So you've got the (unintelligible) bay which is the connection to the banlieues down at the bottom section. Then you got the middle section of trains to northern France. And here at the top, you've got all the international trains. So in a way, you've got something that's very socially divided and financially divided in lots of ways. And the thing about the Gare du Nord is that that's where you feel - the kids from the banlieues feel excluded 'cause, you know, they come here, and it's like a frontier zone between Paris over there, which is very well-heeled and very - you know, very rich and very beautiful - and over there where they're sort of, you know, cast out into this world that is not quite connected to the center of France.

CORNISH: And the journey to that world begins an escalator ride down. Now, the French are so against religious and ethnic divisions, they don't even collect this kind of data, but it's believed that nearly 40 percent of France's of 7 million Muslims live in and around Paris. Now, one of them is 21-year-old Ismael Medjdoub, and he spends a ton of time on this subway.

ISMAEL MEDJDOUB: Every day. Every day including Sunday.

CORNISH: He is a third-generation French Algerian from one of the banlieues, the poorer northern suburbs Andrew Hussey talked about.

I. MEDJDOUB: Take the train for one hour and a half - maybe two hours just to go there to work all the day, and after to have my two hours of commute every day.

CORNISH: We hop the B train with him to get a sense of his commute.

We're lucky we got a seat.

I. MEDJDOUB: Yeah, we are pretty lucky.

CORNISH: Medjdoub straddles two worlds. He's a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, and would like to get an apartment in the city. But he says his district number - it's like an American zip code - is hurting his chances. Now, don't get me wrong. Ismael Medjdoub says he's proud to be from a banlieue, a town called Tremblay en France. But he knows people look down on those communities.

I. MEDJDOUB: Every time that say to someone, I'm coming from suburbs, they have some pity for me that I cannot understand.

CORNISH: Pity for you.

I. MEDJDOUB: Yeah. They have pity for me. I remember that when I was in my first year of history at the Sorbonne University, I had to make homework, and I have one week of delay. And I'm going to see the professor and tell them that I was sorry. And he answer to me, don't worry. You are coming from suburbs so I know what you are feeling. And I was - what? (Laughter). I mean, come on, guy. I'm leaving in a big house with two cats. And so you see, it's not the image that you are making of suburbs.

CORNISH: We arrive at the small, quiet station in Tremblay en France, a world apart from Paris. We head to a small cafe across the street to meet Ismael's mother, Fatihah Medjdoub.

FATIHAH MEDJDOUB: (Speaking French).

CORNISH: We walk towards a nearby cafe to sit down to talk, but at the sight of our microphones, this older Algerian man in a black leather jacket jumps in front of the door.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

CORNISH: He's waving a cigarette around.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

CORNISH: He's on a tear about how politicians have no idea the real issues facing the suburbs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

CORNISH: Ismael Medjdoub shakes his head. His mother rolls her eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

CORNISH: After a bit, the man calms down, and we make our way inside for some coffee.

Is this what it's like? Are people always talking about how they are being treated or how Muslims are being seen?

I. MEDJDOUB: Yeah. The people want to scream - to scream about how they live.

CORNISH: Fatihah Medjdoub adjusts the soft blue-green cloth of her headscarf at the edges of her ears. She tells me her family emigrated from Algeria, and she was born in France in 1963. She grew up here, but she tells me times are different for her son's generation.

F. MEDJDOUB: (Through interpreter) Young people today claim to be more Muslim than they did during my time. We practiced an Islam that was much more - I can't find the exact word, but we practiced Islam privately at home. Today's generation practices an Islam that they seek to understand, and that can lead to prejudices against them.

CORNISH: Ismael, do you agree with your mom about how your generation is treating Islam, its - and its faith?

I. MEDJDOUB: Yes, I agree, and I want to say something more - is that nowadays people are - every time they are denied in their identity, especially with the young generation - you are telling them that you are not able to wear the veil. And because they are denied in their identity, the only way they have to interpret the situation is not wearing simply a hijab but a niqab. But they are...

CORNISH: ...So they are even more public about their faith because they feel as though they're not allowed to show it?

I. MEDJDOUB: Yeah. That's right. That's right.

CORNISH: What do you see as your future in France? Do you feel welcomed here and that you can be successful here?

I. MEDJDOUB: I - don't ask me this kind of question. The fact is that I'm French, and I will live there, and I will never deny my nationality. And I'm very proud of it. And I want to be thankful for the country because if we were stay in Algeria, I know that I would not be able to make the thing that I have done today. So, yeah, I'm just grateful to my country.

CORNISH: We end there because Ismael's friends arrive.

I. MEDJDOUB: ...Best experiments together...

CORNISH: We chat with them outside about what they do for fun, the music they love, which is definitely hip-hop.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Kanye West is kind of god for us.

I. MEDJDOUB: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Kanye West is like kind of god.

I. MEDJDOUB: No, not a god.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Not a god, but kind of god.

CORNISH: Rap is the lingua Franca for many young French Muslims, but music is another politically charged battleground in the debate about French identity. We'll hear more about that elsewhere in today's program. Tomorrow, we'll hear from two young Muslim women, teachers, about the questions they hear from students wrestling with Muslim identity and the French laws of secularism known as laicite. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.