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

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

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

The mayor, a robust believer in the Republic, noticed the trainer on tv and didn’t acknowledge the metropolis he described. He knew his metropolis, west of Paris and with a rising inhabitants of immigrants and Muslims, had issues however thought it was being falsely maligned. The mayor additionally occurred to be a Muslim.

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

For a few weeks this winter, the combat pitting the mayor, Ali Rabeh, 36, in opposition to the trainer, Didier Lemaire, 55, grew to become a media storm that, beneath the noise and accusations, boiled right down to a single, offended question that runs by means of the tradition wars rippling by means of France: Can Islam be suitable with the ideas of the French Republic?

No setting was maybe stronger than Trappes to debate that question. It is a crucible of France’s hopes, and fears. Trappes gave delivery to some of the nation’s brightest leisure and sports activities stars, like Omar Sy, the lead actor in the latest Netflix hit “Lupin.” But Trappes additionally noticed about 70 of its youths go away for jihad to Syria and Iraq, the largest contingent, per capita, from any French metropolis.

The confrontation between trainer and mayor mirrored broader forces reforging a society the place French identification is being questioned greater than ever. As his positions on Islam hardened following terrorist assaults in France lately, the trainer, like many others, moved additional to the proper politically.

Mr. Rabeh, the mayor, belonged to an outspoken era, unafraid to precise its identification and level out France’s failings, whose immigrant mother and father had most well-liked to move unnoticed. He took without any consideration his position in France — and Islam’s place in it.

The combat grew to become personal, as the trainer, saying his life was in peril, accused the mayor of calling him a racist and an Islamophobe. Much of the political institution — pulled in several instructions by details, nationwide myths and political imperatives — sided with the trainer. Even after a lot of his story started to unravel.

The conflict left each males extra disillusioned than earlier than, each feeling they’d lost one thing vital. And like most cultural and political clashes in France, it ended with none satisfying decision, with none sense of coming collectively.

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

One night in February, Le Point, a main conservative newsweekly, posted an article about Mr. Lemaire, who stated he was quitting as a result of of Islamists.

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

That the phrases of a nearly unknown trainer resonated a lot was a signal of the occasions. Just a few months earlier, an extremist had beheaded a middle-school trainer for exhibiting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech. President Emmanuel Macron was now pushing a invoice to combat Islamism whilst he pledged to nurture an “Islam of France.”

Mr. Lemaire’s phrases additionally resonated as a result of of the outsized position in France of public schoolteachers, who’re accountable for inculcating in the younger the nation’s political values and tradition. In the Republic’s mythology, lecturers are the “hussars” — the mild cavalry as soon as used for scouting by European armies — combating to protect the nation’s sanctity.

In the article, Mr. Lemaire stated he had been beneath police escort for months. Trappes’s mayor, he stated, had known as him an “Islamophobe and racist.” He stated he was ready for an “exfiltration” from deep inside “a city lost for good.”

Overnight, the soft-spoken, longhaired trainer, who stated he most well-liked curling up with Seneca than occurring Facebook, was issuing dire warnings on prime tv information reveals.

“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, 20 years earlier. Once a village that grew round a millennium-old Roman Catholic parish, Trappes is now a metropolis of 32,000.

Mr. Lemaire’s highschool, La Plaine-de-Neauphle, stands at the coronary heart of an space constructed to accommodate immigrant staff from France’s former colonies in the Nineteen Seventies — a combination of rent-subsidized high-rises, engaging five-story residences and a constellation of parks. The mosque is close by. So is a market the place distributors supply delicacies from sub-Saharan Africa and halal merchandise.

When the immigrants first got here, group associations funded by the authorities offered assist and providers. But by the time Mr. Lemaire arrived, social packages had been slashed. Factories have been shedding immigrant fathers and providing no jobs to their kids. One crime-ridden neighborhood grew to become referred to as “Chicago.”

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

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

But the unfold of Islamism sophisticated his work, he stated. His college students more and more challenged what he taught. Some, he believed, thought-about him an enemy, whereas others hid their radical beliefs.

He stated some college students lived “double” lives and described seeing a younger lady wearing a lengthy, unfastened dress overlaying all however her face at the market.

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

But the trainer stated he started actually greedy the Islamist risk solely after the sequence of terrorist assaults in France in 2015. He took a first step in 2018, writing a letter to Mr. Macron saying the president wanted to take Islamism extra severely.

In January, he joined a tiny political get together, Parti républicain solidariste, which espouses a arduous line on France’s model of secularism, known as laïcité. He now favors taking women away from their mother and father, after a second warning, if the kids violate laïcité guidelines by placing on Muslim veils throughout college subject journeys.

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

Once Mr. Lemaire began showing on tv, the mayor realized he wanted to reply and started occurring information packages himself to push again in opposition to the portrayal of his metropolis as “lost.”

To Mr. Rabeh, the trainer’s feedback have been tantamount to dismissing one other era from the banlieue.

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

He grew up in one other banlieue, close to Trappes. His father had been an immigrant from Morocco who labored 38 years on Peugeot’s meeting traces.

The union leaflets his father introduced dwelling sparked his curiosity in politics. He grew to become a believer in the promise of the Republic and its professed universalism. A person who additionally embraces his religion, Mr. Rabeh is, his supporters say, simply the variety of chief to assist build an Islam of France.

After working as the deputy mayor for youth, Mr. Rabeh received the mayoral race final year in a tight vote. He has made efforts to widen entry to after-school actions and has been credited with working carefully with nationwide authorities to combat the variety of radicalization that led 70 youths from Trappes to affix the Islamic State between 2014 and 2016.

Nearly all have been killed, and many grieving mother and father nonetheless surprise why their sons and daughters left.

The mother and father belonged to an immigrant era shy about asserting its presence in France and practising its faith, stated Naila Gautier, whose mother and father got here from Tunisia and who has lived in Trappes since 1976. Their kids looked for themselves in a society the place they felt alienated, with some even becoming a member of the Islamic State, she stated.

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

The nationwide authorities say that the networks that after recruited jihadists have been weakened or have disappeared. The most seen indicators of fundamentalism in Trappes have additionally diminished, like the sporting of full-face coverings in public, which is against the law in France.

“But that doesn’t mean that fundamentalism has disappeared,” Mr. Rabeh stated. “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 trainer made dueling media appearances, till the tide appeared to show in Mr. Rabeh’s favor.

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

In remarks to the newspaper Le Monde, the native préfet, the prime civil servant representing the central authorities, praised Mr. Rabeh’s administration for its “total cooperation” in combating Islamism. The préfet additionally refuted the trainer’s declare to having been beneath a police escort.

The trainer’s story started wobbling. He admitted to the French information media, as he did to The Times, that he had “not received explicit death threats.” He had additionally accused the mayor of calling him a “racist and Islamophobe” in an interview with a Dutch tv community.

But the community denied the mayor had stated any such factor.

The media duel was like a boxing match with the individuals of Trappes watching from outdoors the ring. Many have been annoyed that the trainer’s description of a “lost city” appeared to stay. The mayor made a passionate protection however typically couldn’t 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,” stated 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 author whose father arrived in France from Morocco for building work — the feud decreased the complexity of Trappes into nationwide myths and biases.

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

The mayor might have had the details on his aspect, “but he’s an Arab — that’s disturbing,” Ms. Gautier, the founder of Les Mamans du Coeur, stated. Mr. Rabeh didn’t “grovel the way our parents did,” she added.

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

The actuality was far totally different, the metropolis’s leaders stated. Fundamentalism and the risk of Islamism stay, as does crime. But Trappes was largely a hard-working immigrant metropolis the place individuals of all cultures and religions combined, they stated.

At the mosque, the place 3,400 individuals come to wish on Fridays, leaders stated that discuss of a lost metropolis belied the quiet integration of the nice majority into French life. The middle-class vehicles parked at the mosque on Fridays had changed the earlier era’s “clunkers,” they stated.

“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, requested rhetorically. Most had, he stated.

The mosque and the native Catholic Church, with its 600 parishioners, maintain common conferences and exchanges.

Muslim kids attend after-school actions at the parish, and many are enrolled at the Catholic college, Father Guillet stated.

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

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

Per week after the trainer’s feedback first went public, the mayor wrote a letter to the college students at the trainer’s highschool.

“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 5 different metropolis officers recalled that, standing simply outdoors the college, they distributed copies to college students arriving in the morning — by no means anticipating what would occur hours later.

Until that day, Mr. Macron’s ministers had remained quiet however they have been dealing with intense stress from conservative politicians and media shops to assist the trainer.

As it occurred, a televised debate was scheduled that night between Ms. Le Pen and Gérald Darmanin, the inside minister main the authorities’s crackdown on Islamism. Hours earlier than the debate, he introduced that the trainer can be granted police safety.

That night, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the nationwide training minister, issued a statement supporting the trainer. He additionally accused the mayor of trespassing into the highschool 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 stated.

The metropolis officers at the college that morning informed The Times that no copies have been distributed inside. The regional training office and Mr. Blanquer’s office refused to make the college principal out there for an interview. The minister’s office declined to remark.

The trespassing accusations led to such an avalanche of threats in opposition to the mayor that he, too, was put beneath police safety — a shared future, for a whereas, for the two males of Trappes, who had every lost one thing.

The trainer was compelled to depart the college the place he had taught for 20 years and, regardless of his criticisms of Trappes, stated “you really feel you’re on a mission.” He stated he ought to have been extra cautious with the details and had made “many mistakes,” however caught by his interpretation of Trappes as “lost.”

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

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

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

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

Gaëlle Fournier contributed analysis.