The mayor, the teacher and the fight over a ’lost territory’ of France
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, south 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?
No setting was perhaps more potent than Trappes to debate that question. It is a crucible of France’s hopes, and fears. Trappes gave birth to some of the country’s brightest entertainment and sports stars, like Omar Sy, lead actor in the recent Netflix hit “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.
The confrontation between teacher and mayor reflected broader forces reforging a society where French identity is being questioned more than ever. As his positions on Islam hardened following terrorist attacks in France in recent years, the teacher, like many others, moved further to the right politically.
Rabeh, the mayor, belonged to an outspoken generation, unafraid to express its identity and point out France’s failings, whose immigrant parents had preferred to pass unnoticed. He took for granted his role in France — and Islam’s place in it.
The fight became personal, as the teacher, saying his life was in danger, accused the mayor of calling him a racist and an Islamophobe. Much of the political establishment — pulled in different directions by facts, national myths and political imperatives — sided with the teacher. Even after much of his story began to unravel.
The clash left both men more disillusioned than before, both feeling they had lost something important. And like most cultural and political clashes in France, it ended without any satisfying resolution, without any sense of coming together.
“You choose the philosophy teacher,” Lemaire said, “or you choose the mayor of Trappes.”
The Hussar of the Republic
One evening in February, Le Point, a major conservative newsweekly, posted an article about Lemaire, who said he was quitting because of Islamists.
Within a few hours, a conservative politician eyeing the presidency tweeted her support for 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.”
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, Lemaire said he had been under police escort for months. Trappes’ 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.”
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.