France’s forgotten youth


It’s been a tough 13 days for France.

On Wednesday, January 7, my husband stood transfixed in front of the television, saying something about « some shooting somewhere in Paris ». That soon became more specific : the shooting took place at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the 11th arrondissement not far from where we live.

« They say Cabu and Wolinksi were shot » he told me, referring to two of the oldest and best known cartoonists.

« No, » I said, « not possible ».

But it was, and it only got worse. We learned that with a few lucky exceptions the entire staff present that day for the weekly story conference, the first of the year, was dead, gunned down by two black-clad, heavily armed terrorists getting revenge for Charlie Hebdo’s reproduction of drawings of the Prophet Muhammed. Their former headquarters had been firebombed and Charb, as the director, Stephane Charbonnel was called, had been threatened and had round the clock police protection. Yet he and his staff never considered ceasing criticism of Islamic fundamentalists, one of the paper’s favorite targets. Besides, the journalists were having fun doing their jobs which consisted of mocking sacred cows, whether those sacred cows were policemen or politicians, the military, Catholic priests or corporations, or jerks in general.   That made a lot of people.

When the killers ran out into the street, they brandished their kalachnikovs and yelled triumphantly   « We killed Charlie ! »

But they didn’t, of course. A groundswell of indignation, emotion and solidarity arose in France, culminating in a march of millions all over the country on the Saturday and Sunday following the attacks.

Young people and old people bore signs proclaiming « Je Suis Charlie » and marched for freedom of the press. They marched in honor of the journalists and the police killed by the two terrorists and in honor of the four Jewish dead in a kosher grocery store, the victims of a third terrorist in a separate but related attack.   The three terrorists were killed by French police.

All through the days that followed, stories of unlikely heroes such as the young African Muslim employee at the kosher store who saved the lives of the Jewish hostages, surfaced. There was good among the bad and a desire of all the communities to come together. There was a solemn state funeral in the courtyard of the Prefecture de Police for the 3 police men and one police woman, burial services in Israel for the four Jewish victims, poignant individual funeral services for the staff members of Charlie Hebdo at various cemeteries in Paris and outside. The last of those services was held today.

These past days have been a time of tears, a time of reckoning and reflection, and a time of questioning.

What comes next ?

Many things : more police protection, more surveillance of potential terrorists, one might say, « the usual ».

And something else related to a chilling fact : After the initial show of solidarity, it turned out that not everyone was « for » Charlie. In approximately 200 incidents in French schools students flatly refused to observe the minute of silence for the victims of the attacks. I heard that on the news, but also firsthand from a young professor who teaches in one of these schools.

Shocking ? Not when you hear where those schools are located,  in dreary suburbs far from the Eiffel Tower and the chic Parisian shops tourists so love. When you grow up in a sad looking place where there’s not much to do and no jobs (the unemployment rate in these areas is twice as high as elsewhere) you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and no inherent « respect for the Republic » or even school. Hope may be somewhere for these kids, but it isn’t where they live.

Years ago when writing about education in France, I was talking to a young friend who taught in one of these towns (Grigny). He told me that he thought a reality check might be in order, as I had based what I wrote on my experience in a posh western suburb. I took him up on his offer to visit his class and drove through the dilapidated suburbs to my destination, a rundown school with a majority population of immigrants. My young friend obviously had figured out how to deal with these students who, unlike their peers in Neuilly or chic Paris, went home at night either to parents who were there but who didn’t speak French and couldn’t help them, or to parents who weren’t there at all because they were working. His main job was in getting their respect and he did, spending the first 45 minutes of the class simply keeping the kids in line. The last 15 minutes were spent in discussing the content of the lesson. Most were barely interested and dismally behind.

That experience came back to me as the names of Grigny and other dreary suburbs were rolled out by newscasters announcing police raids of possible accomplices of the terrorists.

I concluded that an entire group of people had been missing at the solidarity march. Where were those kids from the outlying areas ? Did they not feel French ? Obviously not.

And whose fault is it ?

That one’s easy. Just look back to the 2005 riots in which the same young people who refused to observe a minute of silence for the victims of this latest attack took to the streets of Paris to wreak havoc and burn cars. The reason – at that time, at least – was boredom and unemployment, not religion. Everyone was shocked and the politicians all made concerned clucking noises about change. But nothing changed, and it’s in these same forgotten territories that the young people no one cares about are leaving to fight in Syria.

What’s needed now is a Marshall Plan for education, a plan that will bring these young people back to the Republic – if it’s not too late already.


A slightly different version of this story appeared in Bonjour Paris

Op-Ed: Tough Days for France




4 thoughts on “France’s forgotten youth”

  1. Equally disconcerting is seeing the masses of Arabs in countries across the Arab World burn the French flag, and other symbolic acts of violence towards west. The Je suis Charlie slogan which for the western world is equated with I am for Freedom of Expression is seen and interpreted entirely differently by the Arab World. They see those three words as meaning that we are for blasphemy of the prophet and against Islam. Just what the radical islamists want. They want a us vs. them mentality. Those thousands of Arab protesters had vicious expressions of hate on their faces in stark contrast to the beautiful and peaceful show of solidarity during that Sunday march. You’re right we have to start with education ( I understand that there are students who also refuse to go on field trips with their class to the Musée du Monde Arabe) but as Frost so succinctly stated, we have “miles to go before we sleep”

  2. A shining good deed stands out, that of Lassana Bathily, who saved fifteen people in the Kosher supermarket. So mazel tov to him, and I hope he will be awarded the legion d’honneur for his own great merit and also to inhibit the vacuous narrative of ‘us and them’.

    1. Dear Sarah,
      I am glad you pointed out the good deed of one Muslim who acted out of sheer goodness and selflessness. He was given French nationality in a ceremony at the Elysée Palace and did he ever deserve it! He didn’t stop to say: oh, these people aren’t like me so I won’t save them. Fortunately, there are more people like that than one would think and who prove that it is not always “us” and “them”. Thanks for your comment.

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