In the suburbs of Paris, where successive generations of North African immigrants have grappled with unemployment and poverty, a youth worker was pasting up posters for a long-planned neighborhood party in a bleak mood.
The previous day’s attack on a French magazine by assailants shouting Islamist slogans threatens to dim the prospects for the young people hanging out on the street corners of the otherwise lifeless neighborhood, said Mohamed. He didn’t want to give his family name or age because of the feeling of intimidation hanging over his community.
“All we want is to live in peace with everybody and this is set to make things worse,” he said. “My friends say they are being looked on as if they were responsible for what happened.”
French Muslims are hunkering down after mosques across the country were attacked in the aftermath of this week’s shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Islamic leaders are urging people to stay vigilant and calm, to avoid provoking other French people and to join protests against the killings. They recommended that veiled women avoid going out alone.
“Panic is spreading,” said M’hammed Henniche, spokesman for UAM 93, an Islamic community group based in Seine-Saint-Denis, a working class Paris suburb. “More and more Muslim people are asking themselves, ‘what’s next?’”
The sense of intimidation is growing as National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who blames immigrants for many of France’s woes, steps up her demands for harsher measures against Muslim radicals.
“The French are right to be upset,” said Leila Jerouani, a 55-year-old divorced homemaker from the same neighborhood as Mohamed’s youth center. “They insult us, we insult them, fine. But it should not get to the point of killing each other.”
France is home to Europe’s largest Islamic community as a proportion of the national population, or about 5 million people. Their numbers have been growing with children and grandchildren of those who arrived from the country’s former colonies in North Africa during the 20th century.
Le Blanc-Mesnil, the neighborhood where Mohamed works and many of those migrants are concentrated, is just 10 miles from downtown Paris, but a world away from the capital’s wealth and glamor. Unemployment is 20 percent, twice the national average, 38 percent of homes are owned by the government and half of the residents earn too little to pay income tax.
The drab, low-rise building where Mohamed works offers one of the few opportunities for activity to local families. Tomorrow he will try to shake off his dejection as he rigs up bouncy castles for the kids and offers refreshments to parents.
“The large majority are going about their lives peacefully, and just a few are causing problems,” he said. “It will be very unfortunate to put everybody in the same bag.”
Henniche said pressure has been mounting since journalist Eric Zemmour predicted in October that the growth of the Muslim community would eventually lead to civil war in France and raised the prospect of deporting immigrants. Zemmour’s latest book, in which he argues immigration has cost the country its sovereignty, has sold nearly 500,000 copies.
The massacre at Charlie Hebdo coincided with the release of a novel by Michel Houellebecq which played on fears that France is being inundated by the influence of Islam. It depicts the country in 2022, governed by a Muslim president imposing his conservative religious views on French society.
Le Pen, whose father founded her party, has ridden that wave of anti-immigrant sentiment to become one of the most popular politicians in France. Yesterday, she called for a referendum on bringing back the death penalty, banned in France since 1981, and demanded President Francois Hollande approve harsher measures to tackle Islamic fundamentalism.
Last month, a court in Frejus ruled in favor of local Muslims after the city’s National Front mayor blocked the construction of a mosque.
Henniche’s group is receiving reports of increasingly frequent attacks in the area he covers, which includes Le Blanc-Mesnil. Women have been insulted or had their veils pulled at, while pork has been thrown at mosques, he said.
“What just happened could make the French even more receptive to poisonous ideas,” Hanan Ben Rhouma, a journalist at the Islamic news website Saphirnews told Liberation newspaper. “I’m scared of people drawing simplistic conclusions.”
In Le Mans, western France, a shot was fired at the local mosque and four non-lethal hand grenades, typically used in military exercises, were thrown into its courtyard, Herve Brevard, deputy prosecutor of the city’s court, said by phone. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack and an investigation is under way, he said.
One mosque was fired on in southern France, LaProvence.com reported while another in Poitiers was daubed with graffiti saying “Death to the Arabs,” Ouest France said. A sandwich outlet close to the mosque in Villefranche-sur-Saone, near Lyon, was hit by an explosion, according to Agence France-Presse.
“It seems to be linked to the dramatic situation” in Paris, the mayor told the news agency.