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?
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.
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.
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.
‘I See Myself In Them’
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.
‘France Really Doesn’t Like Us’
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.
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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MONTREAL — A Quebec court on Tuesday largely upheld a law barring public sector employees such as schoolteachers, police officers, and judges from wearing religious symbols while at work, in a ruling that human rights advocates said would undermine civil liberties in the province.
But the ruling also made some big exceptions that dissatisfied the provincial government. Both sides said they intended to appeal.
Religious minorities across the province said the decision marginalizes them. While the ban is supported by a majority of Quebecers, it has nevertheless proved deeply polarizing in Quebec society where minority lawyers and teachers, among others, say it has derailed their lives and careers, while fomenting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
“The law destroyed my career dreams,” said Noor Farhat, a lawyer who wears a head scarf and aspired to be a public prosecutor. She represented a large Quebec teachers’ union that is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “It is a clear violation of freedom of religion and the government is limiting human rights,” she said.
François Legault, the right-leaning Quebec premier, has said that the law is necessary to ensure that the separation between religion and state is respected in Quebec, a province where secularism holds sway. The law, adopted in June 2019, applies to Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and Catholic crosses, among other symbols.
Lawyers for the Quebec government argued that the law did not impinge on minority rights since people could practice their religion at home. Supporters of the law also argued that it is a force for liberal values, including respect for women and gay people, by preventing religious orthodoxy from encroaching on public life.
But human rights advocates and legal scholars counter that the law breaches the Canadian constitutional right to freedom of religion, while undermining social equality and denying minorities access to jobs in vital fields such as education and law enforcement. They also criticize the law as running counter to Canada’s vaunted model of multiculturalism.
“It will drive religious minorities away rather than bringing them into society,” said Robert Leckey, dean of McGill University’s faculty of law in Montreal and a leading constitutional lawyer. “An inclusive society is surely one where schoolteachers are allowed to look like the kids they are teaching.”
In a 240-page ruling, Justice Marc-André Blanchard of the Quebec Superior Court in Montreal said the Quebec government had the right to restrict the religious symbols worn by public sector employees including teachers, police officers, lawyers and prison guards, while they were at work.
Supreme Court. Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s minister of justice, also said Quebec planned to appeal the ruling, saying that the exemptions carved out in the court’s decision threatened to effectively create two Quebecs and that the law should apply to all Quebecers.
A legal challenge to the law in the courts has proved difficult because to insulate it from potential court action, the government invoked a rarely used constitutional loophole known as the “notwithstanding clause,” which empowers Canadian legislatures to override some constitutional rights like freedom of religion or expression.
The clause was added to Canada’s 1982 constitution to appease some provinces, which were resistant to including a charter of rights as part of the document.
Ms. Farhat said the law had disproportionately affected visible minorities like Muslim women who wore outwardly conspicuous religious symbols like head scarves. A Catholic cross was less conspicuous since it could be concealed in a blouse or a shirt while at work.
Quebec is hardly alone in imposing such a law. In 2004 France banned religious symbols such as Muslim head scarves at state schools. In May 2018, Denmark banned face veils in public, igniting criticism that the law discriminated against Muslim women.
Identity and religion are sensitive issues in Quebec, a Francophone province surrounded by English-majority Canada. In the 1960s, Quebec underwent a social rebellion known as the Quiet Revolution during which Quebecers revolted against the Roman Catholic Church, which had dominated daily life in the province for decades. The result, sociologists say, is that outward expressions of religious orthodoxy have long been viewed with suspicion.
Julius Grey, a leading Canadian human rights lawyer who has argued frequently before the Supreme Court of Canada, said the decision could potentially open the way for other provinces to defy safeguards of the Canadian constitution by weaponizing the notwithstanding clause.
After the law was passed in June 2019, protests erupted across the province, with some local mayors and school boards in Montreal saying they would refuse to enforce it. The Quebec government passed an amendment appointing inspectors to ensure it was obeyed.
PARIS — The French government on Tuesday initiated a wide-ranging public debate on France’s model of secularism, seeking to gain the upper hand on a contentious topic that has roiled the nation in recent months and is likely to be a battleground in a presidential election next year.
Marlène Schiappa, the minister of citizenship, assembled a small group of intellectuals at a gathering in Paris, kicking off what is expected to be a monthslong series of discussions that she described as the “Estates-General on laïcité’’ — referring to the historic assemblies held in France to debate the fundamentals of French society.
Known as laïcité, the French secularism separating church and state has served as the bedrock of the country’s political system for more than a century.
“In every country, there are words that are important, that can’t be overlooked,’’ Ms. Schiappa said, describing laïcité as an idea in which “French destiny is found.’’
announced to a French newspaper over the weekend, caught many by surprise because of its timing and its intentions. It is starting just as lawmakers are wrapping up work on a bill that is intended to reinforce the country’s principles of secularism and to combat Islamism.
Led by Ms. Schiappa — a high-profile minister who has espoused a strict view on secularism — the debate comes as President Emmanuel Macron tries to fend off an increasing threat from the right and far right ahead of next year’s presidential election.
As Mr. Macron tries to burnish his credentials as a defender of a strict vision of laïcité, he has also moved to seize another issue important to right-wing voters: crime.
Following months of attention on the government’s stumbling coronavirus vaccination campaign, Mr. Macron pledged on Monday to be tough on crime, to crack down on recreational drugs and to recruit 10,000 additional police officers by the end of his current five-year term. The promises were made in a long, tough-talking interview he gave to a conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, that another publication described as reminiscent of Rudolph Giuliani, the combative former mayor of New York.
On Monday, Mr. Macron visited drug-dealing spots in the southern city of Montpellier, talking to police officers and riding along inside a police car. Even as Ms. Schiappa inaugurated the debate on secularism, Mr. Macron’s prime minister and justice minister visited a prison under construction in eastern France to announce details of the government’s expansion of the prison system.
Laïcité Observatory, a government watchdog that supporters of a strict laïcité long criticized as being soft. The government’s bill against Islamism also intends to enforce the country’s principles of secularism by gaining greater control over Muslim and other religious organizations, and by restricting home and private schooling.
Appearing inside a church that had been converted into a government building, Ms. Schiappa spoke about the need for a “calm’’ discussion on laïcité. But the heated nature of the debate could be seen as some of the six invited intellectuals — four in favor of a strict laïcité and two against — took barely concealed swipes at one another.
Conservative intellectuals said that laïcité was a universalist principle and a useful tool to fight against Islamism and an identity-driven fragmentation of society.
Raphaël Enthoven, a philosopher, criticized those who, in the name of tolerance toward religions, favor a liberal version of laïcité, saying it plays into the hands of Islamists. “Laïcité is the object of prosecution and despicable propaganda which consists in presenting it almost as racism,” Mr. Enthoven said.
French Democratic Confederation of Labor, said it was a bad idea to initiate these discussions while the separatism bill had yet to become law.
“We must stop making laïcité a permanent object of media agitation,’’ he said in a tweet.
Mr. Macron’s two-pronged efforts on laïcité and crime this week come as polls show him neck-and-neck with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally, in next year’s presidential election. With voters moving to the right and France’s left-leaning parties in shambles, Mr. Macron’s electoral strategy rests on winning over right-leaning voters who might be tempted to migrate to the extreme right.
Polls show that while support for Macron has remained steady overall, he has lost support among right-wing voters over the past four months. While 48 percent of conservative voters and 20 percent of far-right supporters said they were satisfied with him in December, according to an IFOP study, that proportion fell to 30 percent and 13 percent in April, according to the same polling firm.
Mr. Macron has also been under pressure from the right-controlled Senate, which last week passed a toughened version of his bill against Islamism, adding a series of amendments that critics said risked discriminating against Muslims.
Many of the new measures stem from debates over the wearing of the Muslim veil. They include a ban on ostentatious religious symbols or clothing for minors in the public space and in sport tournaments, as well as for parents accompanying children on school outings. They also enable local authorities to ban the full-body swimsuit that some Muslim women wear at swimming pools and empower mayors to ban foreign flags in and around city hall buildings during wedding celebrations.
The bill, which was approved earlier by the National Assembly, will now be examined by a cross-party parliamentary commission. If the commission fails to come to an agreement, the National Assembly, which is controlled by Mr. Macron’s party, will have the final say. The Constitutional Council could also revoke some of the new measures.
The disparities also touch on everything from government subsidies to private schools to credits on personal income for donations, which overwhelmingly favor Catholics and high-income taxpayers. But they are perhaps most glaring in physical structures. Even as Mr. Macron has pledged to nurture an “Islam of France,” followers of the faith suffer from an acute shortage of proper mosques across the country.
“It’s a total paradox,” Saïd Aït-Laama, an imam, said in an interview before Friday Prayer.
Unable to finance mosque-building themselves, generally unassisted by the state, Muslim communities have turned to governments abroad for help.
But that may now become more difficult under Mr. Macron’s new law, which is intended to combat Islamism by toughening rules on secularism and controls over religious organizations, including tightening the flow of foreign donations.
Last week, the government said that the new law would allow it to oppose the public financing of a large mosque in Strasbourg, in the eastern region of Alsace, where, for historical reasons, the construction of religious buildings can still qualify for government subsidies.
The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, pressed the local government to cancel the funding, saying that the association behind the Strasbourg mosque had ties to the Turkish government.
Even before new law was drafted, the City Council of Angers used real-estate regulations last year to stop mosque leaders from turning to Morocco. A provision in Mr. Macron’s law would allow the national government, too, to oppose the sale of religious buildings to a foreign government if the French authorities consider the sale a threat.
Mr. Macron has said that the legislation is critical to fighting the kind of radical ideology that has sent French youths to fight in Syria and led to the deaths of more than 250 French people in Islamist terrorist attacks since 2015. Last fall, four people were killed in three separate terrorist attacks.