“Who in this room is French?” Nourdine Nabili asks a group of 25 eighth-graders in Bondy, one of the concrete working-class suburbs just outside Paris. It is April 2011 and Nabili, the 44-year-old editor-in-chief of the popular website Bondy Blog, is visiting a journalism workshop at the Jean Renoir junior high school. I am sitting in on the session.
In response to Nabili’s question, about five students tentatively raise their hands.
Nabili then asks, “Who in this room is a foreigner?” I, the only American in the room, raise my hand. Nabili, born in Morocco, raises his hand. Once again, the students seem uncertain. Once again, five of them sheepishly raise their hands.
Finally, Nabili asks, “Who in this room was born in France?”
At least 20 of the 25 kids in the class throw up their hands.
Nabili shakes his head, looking exasperated. “You were born in France and you don’t feel French. But you don’t consider yourself foreign, either. What are you?”
The room full of 13-year-olds — black, brown and white, most of them the children of immigrants — exchange embarrassed glances. More than anything, they seem confused.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that class in Bondy since last week’s massacre in Norway. Anders Breivik, in his interminable Internet rant, writes quite a bit about France. As the European country with the largest Muslim population, France is the likeliest target for an Islamic takeover, according to Breivik.
Never mind that the riots that enflamed French suburbs like Bondy in November 2005 had absolutely nothing to do with religion. They were fueled by charges of racism and police brutality. But Breivik, in his manifesto, refers to the French rioters as “jihadists.”
Fortunately, France has not been the victim of a terrorist attack since the metro bombings of 1995. But Europe as a whole was traumatized by a chain of gruesome post-9/11 aftershocks: The Madrid train bombings in March 2004. The assassination of the provocative Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan-born lunatic in the middle of Amsterdam in November 2004. The London suicide bombings on July 7, 2005.
Decades of simmering distrust that so many Europeans had felt toward immigrants from the Muslim world turned into a sort of low-wave hysteria with all the violence of the first five years of the 21st century. Ten years after 9/11, right-wing anti-immigrant parties have made gains in nearly every European nation. And of course, an economic collapse, like the one in 2008, traditionally breeds hostility toward outsiders.