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


TRAPPES, France — It all began when a high-school teacher warned that Islamists had taken over the city. The teacher went on TV, issuing alarms from inside what he called a “lost city” of the French Republic. In Trappes, he said, he feared for his life.

“Trappes, it’s finished,” the teacher said. “They’ve won.”

The mayor, a strong believer in the Republic, saw the teacher on television and didn’t recognize the city he described. He knew his city, west of Paris and with a growing population of immigrants and Muslims, had problems but thought it was being falsely maligned. The mayor also happened to be a Muslim.

“The truth doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.

For a few weeks this winter, the fight pitting the mayor, Ali Rabeh, 36, against the teacher, Didier Lemaire, 55, became a media storm that, beneath the noise and accusations, boiled down to a single, angry question that runs through the culture wars rippling through France: Can Islam be compatible with the principles of the French Republic?

No setting was perhaps more potent than Trappes to debate that question. It is a crucible of France’s hopes, and fears. Trappes gave birth to some of the country’s brightest entertainment and sports stars, like Omar Sy, the lead actor in the recent Netflix hit “Lupin.” But Trappes also saw about 70 of its youths leave for jihad to Syria and Iraq, the largest contingent, per capita, from any French city.

The confrontation between teacher and mayor reflected broader forces reforging a society where French identity is being questioned more than ever. As his positions on Islam hardened following terrorist attacks in France in recent years, the teacher, like many others, moved further to the right politically.

Mr. Rabeh, the mayor, belonged to an outspoken generation, unafraid to express its identity and point out France’s failings, whose immigrant parents had preferred to pass unnoticed. He took for granted his role in France — and Islam’s place in it.

The fight became personal, as the teacher, saying his life was in danger, accused the mayor of calling him a racist and an Islamophobe. Much of the political establishment — pulled in different directions by facts, national myths and political imperatives — sided with the teacher. Even after much of his story began to unravel.

The clash left both men more disillusioned than before, both feeling they had lost something important. And like most cultural and political clashes in France, it ended without any satisfying resolution, without any sense of coming together.

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

One evening in February, Le Point, a major conservative newsweekly, posted an article about Mr. Lemaire, who said he was quitting because of Islamists.

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

That the words of a virtually unknown teacher resonated so much was a sign of the times. A few months earlier, an extremist had beheaded a middle-school teacher for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech. President Emmanuel Macron was now pushing a bill to fight Islamism even as he pledged to nurture an “Islam of France.”

Mr. Lemaire’s words also resonated because of the outsized role in France of public schoolteachers, who are responsible for inculcating in the young the nation’s political values and culture. In the Republic’s mythology, teachers are the “hussars” — the light cavalry once used for scouting by European armies — fighting to preserve the nation’s sanctity.

In the article, Mr. Lemaire said he had been under police escort for months. Trappes’s mayor, he said, had called him an “Islamophobe and racist.” He said he was waiting for an “exfiltration” from deep inside “a city lost for good.”

Overnight, the soft-spoken, longhaired teacher, who said he preferred curling up with Seneca than going on Facebook, was issuing dire warnings on top television news shows.

“We have six months to a year,” he said, “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, two decades earlier. Once a village that grew around a millennium-old Roman Catholic parish, Trappes is now a city of 32,000.

Mr. Lemaire’s high school, La Plaine-de-Neauphle, stands at the heart of an area built to accommodate immigrant workers from France’s former colonies in the 1970s — a mixture of rent-subsidized high-rises, attractive five-story residences and a constellation of parks. The mosque is nearby. So is a market where vendors offer delicacies from sub-Saharan Africa and halal products.

When the immigrants first came, community associations funded by the government provided support and services. But by the time Mr. Lemaire arrived, social programs had been slashed. Factories were laying off immigrant fathers and offering no jobs to their children. One crime-ridden neighborhood became known as “Chicago.”

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

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

But the spread of Islamism complicated his work, he said. His students increasingly challenged what he taught. Some, he believed, considered him an enemy, while others hid their radical beliefs.

He said some students lived “double” lives and described seeing a young woman dressed in a long, loose dress covering all but her face at the market.

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

But the teacher said he began truly grasping the Islamist threat only after the series of terrorist attacks in France in 2015. He took a first step in 2018, writing a letter to Mr. Macron saying the president needed to take Islamism more seriously.

In January, he joined a tiny political party, Parti républicain solidariste, which espouses a hard line on France’s version of secularism, called laïcité. He now favors taking girls away from their parents, after a second warning, if the children violate laïcité rules by putting on Muslim veils during school field trips.

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

Once Mr. Lemaire started appearing on television, the mayor realized he needed to respond and began going on news programs himself to push back against the portrayal of his city as “lost.”

To Mr. Rabeh, the teacher’s comments were tantamount to dismissing another generation from the banlieue.

“I see myself in them,” Mr. Rabeh said in an interview.

He grew up in another banlieue, near Trappes. His father had been an immigrant from Morocco who worked 38 years on Peugeot’s assembly lines.

The union leaflets his father brought home sparked his interest in politics. He became a believer in the promise of the Republic and its professed universalism. A man who also embraces his faith, Mr. Rabeh is, his supporters say, just the kind of leader to help build an Islam of France.

After working as the deputy mayor for youth, Mr. Rabeh won the mayoral race last year in a tight vote. He has made efforts to widen access to after-school activities and has been credited with working closely with national authorities to fight the kind of radicalization that led 70 youths from Trappes to join the Islamic State between 2014 and 2016.

Nearly all were killed, and many grieving parents still wonder why their sons and daughters left.

The parents belonged to an immigrant generation shy about asserting its presence in France and practicing its religion, said Naila Gautier, whose parents came from Tunisia and who has lived in Trappes since 1976. Their children searched for themselves in a society where they felt alienated, with some even joining the Islamic State, she said.

“It gave way to the anger of the children who didn’t know the history of their parents and their origins and their religion,” said Ms. Gautier, the founder of Les Mamans du Coeur, a group that counsels families whose children left for Syria.

The national authorities say that the networks that once recruited jihadists have been weakened or have disappeared. The most visible signs of fundamentalism in Trappes have also diminished, like the wearing of full-face coverings in public, which is illegal in France.

“But that doesn’t mean that fundamentalism has disappeared,” Mr. Rabeh said. “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 teacher made dueling media appearances, until the tide appeared to turn in Mr. Rabeh’s favor.

The regional education office contradicted the teacher’s description of his school, saying it had “experienced, in recent years, a decline in antisocial behavior and violations of laïcité.”

In remarks to the newspaper Le Monde, the local préfet, the top civil servant representing the central government, praised Mr. Rabeh’s administration for its “total cooperation” in combating Islamism. The préfet also refuted the teacher’s claim to having been under a police escort.

The teacher’s story began wobbling. He admitted to the French news media, as he did to The Times, that he had “not received explicit death threats.” He had also accused the mayor of calling him a “racist and Islamophobe” in an interview with a Dutch television network.

But the network denied the mayor had said any such thing.

The media duel was like a boxing match with the people of Trappes watching from outside the ring. Many were frustrated that the teacher’s description of a “lost city” seemed to stick. The mayor made a passionate defense but sometimes could not 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,” said 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 writer whose father arrived in France from Morocco for construction work — the feud reduced the complexity of Trappes into national myths and biases.

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

The mayor may have had the facts on his side, “but he’s an Arab — that’s disturbing,” Ms. Gautier, the founder of Les Mamans du Coeur, said. Mr. Rabeh did not “grovel the way our parents did,” she added.

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

The reality was far different, the city’s leaders said. Fundamentalism and the threat of Islamism remain, as does crime. But Trappes was mostly a hard-working immigrant city where people of all cultures and religions mixed, they said.

At the mosque, where 3,400 people come to pray on Fridays, leaders said that talk of a lost city belied the quiet integration of the great majority into French life. The middle-class cars parked at the mosque on Fridays had replaced the previous generation’s “clunkers,” they said.

“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, asked rhetorically. Most had, he said.

The mosque and the local Catholic Church, with its 600 parishioners, hold regular meetings and exchanges.

Muslim children attend after-school activities at the parish, and many are enrolled at the Catholic school, Father Guillet said.

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

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

A week after the teacher’s comments first went public, the mayor wrote a letter to the students at the teacher’s high school.

“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 five other city officials recalled that, standing just outside the school, they distributed copies to students arriving in the morning — never expecting what would happen hours later.

Until that day, Mr. Macron’s ministers had remained quiet but they were facing intense pressure from conservative politicians and media outlets to support the teacher.

As it happened, a televised debate was scheduled that evening between Ms. Le Pen and Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister leading the government’s crackdown on Islamism. Hours before the debate, he announced that the teacher would be granted police protection.

That evening, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the national education minister, issued a statement supporting the teacher. He also accused the mayor of trespassing into the high school 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 said.

The city officials at the school that morning told The Times that no copies were distributed inside. The regional education office and Mr. Blanquer’s office refused to make the school principal available for an interview. The minister’s office declined to comment.

The trespassing accusations led to such an avalanche of threats against the mayor that he, too, was put under police protection — a shared destiny, for a while, for the two men of Trappes, who had each lost something.

The teacher was forced to leave the school where he had taught for 20 years and, despite his criticisms of Trappes, said “you really feel you’re on a mission.” He said he should have been more careful with the facts and had made “many mistakes,” but stuck by his interpretation of Trappes as “lost.”

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

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

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

He declined his worried 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 said. “But the truth is they’re not the Republic. The kids of Trappes are the Republic.”

Gaëlle Fournier contributed research.



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