Best of Slow Journalism: The Other France

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

On 7th January 2015, after hearing that Saïd and Chérif Kouachi had just killed 12 people at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Fouad Ben Ahmed logged onto Facebook. “My French heart bleeds, my Muslim soul weeps,” he wrote. A lifelong resident of the banlieues of Paris, Ben Ahmed works as a liaison between residents in his community of Bondy, a suburb north-east of Paris, and the local government. As Europe scrambled to understand the causes of homegrown terrorism in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, George Packer spent time with Ben Ahmed, and investigated whether the Parisian banlieues are incubators of terrorism.

Through Ben Ahmed, Packer met a handful of residents that live in Department 93, an area that to many Parisians signifies “decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims”. There’s J.–P., a young man Ben Ahmed tries to help stay out of trouble, who tells Packer “I’ve never seen the ‘Mona Lisa.’ I want to see it before I die.” He also discusses the time he served in prison alongside Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed five people two days after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Packer also met Hélène Kuhnmunch, a history teacher at a vocational school who was saddened when a Muslim student felt compelled to reassure her that he did not agree with the attacks.

The Other France is the tale of a city divided – by the Périphérique, the ring road that separates the centre of Paris from the suburbs, and by religious and cultural identity. Packer turns in a deep investigation, concluding that a sense of exclusion has been festering for far too long. “I got the feeling that, after decades of denial, France was now playing catch-up,” he writes.

His excellent piece is available here.

We covered the Charlie Hebdo attack and its aftermath in DG #18. An extract of the feature is available here.

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