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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Ecquevilly: The ‘quiet Salafist’ town resisting French integration

While there are signs of hope in this commune west of Paris, a radical preacher’s influence lingers

The town sign of Ecquevilly in France. Colin Randall for The National
The town sign of Ecquevilly in France. Colin Randall for The National

Barely 30 kilometres from the renowned Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France’s perpetual search for harmonious relations with its post-colonial Muslim population has its own reflection in the troubled recent history of one small town.

On first encounter, Ecquevilly – a community of only 4,200 people – seems just another part of the commuter belt west of Paris.

Smart detached houses, some proudly flying French tricolours, are found a few paces from drab but functional blocks of low-cost apartments.

A diversified population evokes France’s multicultural World Cup-winning team. But not everyone embraces the notion that a sporting triumph drawing on all ethnic strands can truly accelerate the process of integration and inspire what the French call “vivre ensemble”, living together in mutual tolerance and respect.

A minority of French Muslims wish to lead lives divorced from secular western society. This desire became so pronounced in Ecquevilly, under the influence of a charismatic preacher who was born and grew up there, that two reporters from the Catholic daily newspaper, La Croix, recently spent three weeks there observing everyday life.

Their powerful report, its title roughly translating as "Salafism in Daily Life", stretched to several pages and had a profound impact on residents, officials and community leaders.

Until the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, Ecquevilly had a thriving mosque housed on the ground floor beneath a kindergarten near the imposing town hall depicted as a chateau in a film based on the comic character Tintin.

People travelled from as far as Belgium for Friday prayers, drawn by the persuasive imam Youssef Bounouader, who had limited Islamic scholarship but restyled himself Abou Anas after visits to Yemen and Syria and adopted a strict practice of Islam. Music, dancing and television were discouraged, as was contact with Christians and Jews.

A year after the ISIS murders that left 130 dead across the capital on November 13 2015, growing concern about the mosque led the French authorities to use emergency powers to force its closure.

A long police investigation had prompted Serge Morvan, the prefect (government administrator) for the Yvelines department west of Paris, to justify the decision by citing its leadership’s advocacy of “discrimination and hatred, even violence”.

This was disputed. “Abou Anas was careful not to cross the line between radical but not illegal preaching,” a moderate Muslim who has known him from childhood told The National. “He was always at the borderline.”

The imam, who continues to preach online, roundly condemned the Paris attacks, and subsequent ISIS atrocities including the suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester in May 2017.

But many found his sermons and his rigid views disturbing. “In his eyes, I am kuffar – an infidel – because I wear western clothes and not traditional robes,” said a practising Muslim with Maghrebin roots.

The shuttered mosque in the town of Ecquevilly. Colin Randall for The National.
The shuttered mosque in the town of Ecquevilly. Colin Randall for The National.

Many residents of the housing blocks, clean but soulless and devoid of shops or cafes, deferred to his vision of how Muslims should live and dress.

Abou Anas surrounded himself with highly motivated young supporters. Enough people complied to make it seem a part of this small town had cut itself off from mainstream France, without seeing the inconsistency of simultaneously accepting social benefits and public services.

Local officials say the problem is restricted to the Parc area of the town, accounting for only about 20 per cent of inhabitants. Not all were enthusiastic about Abou Anas’s advocacy of ”quiet Salafism”, a form that avoids involvement in politics or calls to armed violence but – in the words of one Muslim – “they followed like sheep”.

A senior local politician who initially talked freely to The National but then asked not to be identified as this would be “unhelpful” to Ecquevilly, spoke of a common Salafist strategy to buy or rent adjacent flats or houses, “gradually building a sort of village of their own”.

“At the heart of the Salafist tendency are maybe 20 households,” says one informed local. “That’s the inner circle but then there is one larger outer ring of maybe 40 more and another, bigger still, of sympathisers.”

As a result, Equevilly’s Muslims have had to do without a mosque of their own. A replacement planned before the closure of the old one is nearing completion after work costing €700,000 (Dh2.9m) donated by Muslims around France. But Muslim moderates say it cannot open without a leadership detached from Abou Anas’s supporters.

“So far that is proving difficult,” says Abdelaziz El Jaouhari, general secretary of Muslim institutions in the region and president of a mosque in neighbouring Mantes.

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He believes Abou Anas used subtle methods rather than insults or intimidation to sway people. As the prominent figure in a group of Muslim men with similar clothing and attitudes, he convinced others his was the right path.

“I do not condemn Salafism,” says Mr El Jaouhari. “There are several schools of Islam and each Muslim must make a personal choice. But to force that choice on others is wrong.”

His view echoes arguments used by Vincent Brengarth, a French lawyer who unsuccessfully challenged the mosque closure. He told the country’s supreme appeal court, the Council of State: “We do not see that the fight against terrorism should gag all forms of Islam just because they do not meet all the canons of a republican Islam.”

And, at a public meeting in Ecquevilly in May, one audience member said the authorities’ attitude towards local Muslims amounted to collective punishment, depriving them of the mosque and, as a result, stigmatising them for events they had nothing to do with.

“Yet no one went from here to wage Jihad [in Iraq or Syria],” he said.

The contrast with another small French town is striking in this respect; dozens of young men from Lunel, in the south-west, ended up fighting and, in several cases, dying in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.

One beacon of hope in Ecquevilly's divided community is Mosaique, an association where mixed groups of young people come together for a range of cultural and sporting activities. Young members of French, Maghrebin and sub-Saharan African backgrounds took part in a recent sponsored cycle ride that covered 400 kilometres in a week and raised €7,000 (Dh29,150) for a cancer charity.

“Our mission is simple,” says Mosaique’s director Idriss Amazouz, 47, the son of an Algerian immigrant. “We encourage young people to act for themselves.” The beaming young faces preparing for a Halloween show spoke volumes of Mosaique’s success.

Bruno Millienne, MP for the Yvelines and vice-president of the parliamentary Modem group allied to President Emmanuel Macron, said Mosaique’s work was vital in building links between people of different ethnic roots.

“It is by learning to rediscover each other in respect of our cultural differences that we will get there. It’s a difficult task and will take time but deserves the effort.”

He says Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood doctrines exist everywhere in France. “Their followers are currently more discreet but, at the slightest untoward event, they reappear as quickly as they have been hiding.”

A recent book by a conservative novelist and teacher Christian de Moliner made the alarmist claim that only by giving semi-autonomous status to the “30 per cent of Muslims who believe Sharia should prevail over French law” would France avoid civil war.

His arguments have attracted widespread condemnation.

But Mr Millienne acknowledges that France “can’t avoid parallel societies” as “they have always existed” and always will. “On the other hand, we can considerably limit their influences through education and culture,” he says.

Distanced from the influence of Abou Anas, but amid concern that he and his followers want to control the new mosque once it opens, Ecquevilly strikes visitors as calm if curiously quiet. As La Croix noted, people in the Parc district are rarely seen, except when delivering or collecting children to and from school.

There are signs of an improved atmosphere. But no one says with confidence that the radical influence of Abou Anas will not re-surface. He still has followers, and is still seen in the area, visiting his mother, though he shuns the media.

“It’s as if you have cut off the snake’s head,” said one of few Muslims willing to speak, “but the body still moves.”