Beyond the northeastern edge of the périphérique, an infamous, traffic-clogged ring road that symbolically demarks Paris from its banlieues, Pantin has for decades been a hub for immigrant communities. Algerians, Turks, Moroccans, Libyans and Lebanese are among those to have carved out space along these margins of the French capital, coming to quietly forge their own unique diaspora cultures.
It’s five years to the day since deadly terror attacks took place across Paris on the evening of the 13th of November, 2015 – starting in the Bataclan concert hall and spreading across the city, with people targeted in bars and restaurants in the city centre and the Stade de France stadium. In total, 130 people were killed and 350 injured.
In recent weeks, the spotlight has turned on Pantin and districts like it. Last month Samuel Paty, a teacher in another suburb, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, who showed his class caricatures of the prophet Muhammad to illustrate the concept of freedom of speech, was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen. In the aftermath of Paty’s murder, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a further crackdown on “radical islamists”, investigating and potentially closing 51 Muslim associations alleged to have extremist sympathies, announcing plans to expel 231 foreigners, and among other actions, closing the mosque in Pantin that criticised the murdered schoolteacher for sharing the cartoons.
The events have ignited a huge debate about France’s complex secularist principle of laicité – including the idea that freedom of expression should not be curbed to protect the feelings of one group – and the role of France’s 5.7 million-strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe.
In the war of words, Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said supermarkets should not have “communitarian” food aisles stocked with Halal food, and prime minister Jean Castex said France shouldn’t “regret” colonisation.
On the streets of Pantin, the opinion of the Muslim community is similarly polarised between critics and supporters of French policy. Beila Ikhteah, an 18-year-old student sitting on a bench in Stalingrad Park, is concerned that all Muslims will suffer in the so-called battle against separatism. “Yes, there are terrorists who have done terrible things and they must be stopped,” she tells VICE News. “But France is taking on all of Islam – they're using it as a pretext to say it's our fault. They're targeting our religion.”
Ikhteah says that her family has increasingly been on the receiving end of Islamophobia, and believes political rhetoric has played a role in it. “My father is an Uber driver and he meets a lot of racists,” she says. “My mother has been robbed by racists. But it’s everywhere. Even just on public transport, there are people who give you bad looks. What Darmanin said was shocking. You can’t impose that on people. It's things like that that make me think this could get worse.”
Justine Yalabik, 50, who works in a Turkish food shop along Avenue Jean Lolive, says she has never had problems with Islamophobia. “It's very easy to live in France as a Muslim,” she says. “I read about Islamophobia in the news, but, me personally, since I was little and went to school here I have never had serious problems. I never met people like that. Maybe it’s because I am well-integrated and I don’t impose my religion or beliefs on others. We don't have the right to impose this.”
French laicité is a very reasonable concept, she adds. “A minority can't decide for a majority,” says Yalabik. “We need to respect the laws of the country we live in. It's the same as a school – you need to respect the rules and if you don't then you need to find another school that works for you. But diversity is a good thing. We enrich ourselves with all these religions and cultures.”
The only quibble Yalabik has is with Darmanin’s comments on food. “Nobody can decide what I want to eat,” she says. There should be aisles for Kosher and Halal, or even an aisle full of edible insects – that would not bother me at all if people wanted it.”
Others, however, dispute the quality of life for French Muslims, pointing to a long history of societal racism in France. Retired policeman Youssef*, 84, who emigrated from Algeria looking for work in 1961 and asked not to be named, says: “At the time, when I first moved here, the police were very openly racist. They would call you over just because you were Arabic and beat you. It was difficult.”
Sipping on a coffee outside Brasserie Le Carlades, Youssef explains that the racism he experienced was the driving force behind why he became a policeman. “I wanted to try to change it from the inside,” he says. “But you want the truth? The world of politics is shit. We can't change anything. It's just something we have to live with.”
While distrust towards politicians is near-constant, on the other side of the coin some see current tensions as a passing phase. “Whether it's Macron or somebody else like Sarkozy, it's the same thing, it doesn't change much,” says a French-Moroccan woman* in her 30s working in a computer services shop, who asked not to be named. “There are always conflicts, it will pass. There are many religions in France that get along very well. The most important thing is that we respect one another, and if that happens there are no problems.”
However, she disagrees with the decision to close Pantin’s mosque. “Of course they should deal with anyone who is causing trouble, but why close the mosque? It punishes all the people of faith who go there. It's sad.”
Mohammed Kader, a 50-year-old manual labourer shopping in his local Halal butcher, disagrees. “They were right to close the mosque. But that wasn't a real Imam [who led the Pantin mosque], he doesn't represent us. People like him do not belong in France.”
When asked about Islamophobia in French society, Kader throws his arms up in the air. “Of course it's Islamophobic,” he says. “French farmers are happy to take our money for the meat here and on the city hall building it says ‘Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité’. But when it comes to applying for a job, if your name is Mohammed and not Jean Papillon, the reality is you will not be hired.”
*Names were withheld to protect their identities.