Trappes mayor Ali Rabeh. Photograph: Thomas Padilla/Maxppp/PA Images
Mayor of Paris suburb labelled an extremist centre says stoking division will not help his town
The HairCoiffure salon on Rue Jean Jaurès, a short walk from Trappes station, is offering a cut-and-blow-dry for women at €18 (£15.50) and €15 for men, a banal observation at the centre of the latest battle in France’s toxic debate over religious extremism.
Hairdressers and their clients hit the headlines after local teacher Didier Lemaire claimed there were no mixed salons in Trappes – suggesting the town was in the stranglehold of Islamic radicalisation. He also claimed schoolchildren were banned from singing and some women barred from cafes. Lemaire has since been placed under police protection following alleged death threats.
The accusations came on the eve French MPs voted on a controversial bill to combat Islamist extremism, put forward after the brutal murder of teacher Samuel Paty last October.
But the claims have sparked anger and indignation from locals known as Trappists – the most famous of whom are the actor Omar Sy, footballer Nicolas Anelka and popular French comedian Jamel Debbouze. In an interview with the Observer, town mayor Ali Rabeh hit back.
“We are being stigmatised,” he said. “Many of the people spreading lies, exaggerations and unjust accusations about Trappes have no idea what happens here. They have never set foot in the town.
“Yes, there are problems with drugs, delinquency and radicalisation. I have never denied that. But we’re working to resolve them and these sort of attacks don’t help. And of course our children sing: they sing in nursery, primary and secondary schools. We even have school choirs.”
Trappes, in the western suburbs of Paris near Versailles, holds a grim national record after more than 60 local young people left to join Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, making it a soft target in this political and ideological conflict.
It is also in the Yvelines department where Paty was beheaded last October. So when philosophy professor Lemaire, 55, claimed the town was under the yoke of Salafism and “definitively lost” to the republic, he had a captive audience. “There are no more mixed hairdressers, north African women can no longer go to cafés, there’s pressure on women over the veil … Trappes is no longer in France,” Lemaire told French TV. He claimed locals were “living in fear” and laicité – France’s cherished separation of religion and state – was defeated. (Lemaire later admitted his comments on hairdressers were “approximative” but doubled down on the rest).
Rabeh, 36, the son of Moroccan migrants, responded angrily, accusing Lemaire and the media who gave him airtime of stoking division and making life even more complicated for locals. “Young people taking the baccalauréat this year tell me they’re worried sick about how they’re going to get places at good colleges and universities when they say they’re from Trappes,” Rabeh said. “It’s so unfair on them. It’s as if every single time we get our head out of water, someone pushes us back under.” Like Lemaire, Rabeh has also been given police protection.
On a chilly recent Friday, the snow-dusted streets of Trappes were calm. On one side of town, a cluster of men drank outside a bar near the station, on the other worshippers clutching prayer mats streamed from the local mosque. Yards from the Lycée La Plaine de Neauphle where Lemaire taught for 20 years, the window of another hairdressers, Saint Lou Coiffure, was clearly marked “Masculin – Feminin”. The town boasts a modern music and dance school, with subsidised classes for low-income families; the Trappes magazine carries pictures of December’s “Magic of Christmas” illuminations.
Inside the town hall, Rabeh was fuming: “We know there is a problem with Islamism here but we have made progress. We are working to resolve these problems and someone comes along and attacks us with lies, exaggerations and unjust accusations. Sometimes I despair.”
He added: “Would a mayor with a different name be faced with this? Trappes is part of the French republic. It’s absolutely untrue to suggest otherwise.”
It would be easy to dismiss Trappes as yet another rundown, problem-riddled Paris suburb were it not for the fact that it has benefited from a vast urban renewal programme. Most of its dilapidated 1970s high-rise tower blocks have been demolished and the council estates renovated. More mixed private and public housing with flower beds and children’s playgrounds are gradually replacing low-rent housing. The streets are clean, local facilities modernised and Lemaire’s own lycée boasts the best results in the department. Unemployment is running at 5.6% of the active population – half of whom are under 30 – compared with 6.7% for Paris.
The picture is not all rosy, though: more than a quarter of Trappists live under the poverty line and Rabeh says the Islamic radicalisation problem is “complex” and fuelled by a sense that the republic has abandoned local communities like Trappes.
When a TV crew made an unannounced visit locals crowded round to defend their town. Jacques Michelet who runs the Trappes basketball club rejected the suggestion it had been abandoned to Islamic extremism: “We’ve seen all ideologies, we’ve seen extremists and not just Islamists … but it’s a marginal phenomenon in Trappes.”
Father Etienne Guillet, the local Catholic priest, contested Lemaire’s suggestion that non-Muslim inhabitants have fled. His congregation boasts up to 700 people from 45 different countries. “When there are tensions, I meet with the local imams and we sort things out,” said Guillet. “It’s not easy for everyone to live together and there ’s always the temptation for communities to withdraw, but what I see in this town is things going well.”
Rabeh said last week he was stepping back from the row, posting a quote by French socialist leader Jean Jaurès, whose statue stands outside Trappes town hall, on social media. It reads: “Courage is to seek the truth and tell it; it is not to be subjected to the law of the triumphant lie that passes, and not to echo, from our soul, mouth and hands to foolish applause and fanatical booing.”
- This article was amended on 21 February 2021 to correct an error introduced during editing which resulted in Ali Rabeh’s name being misspelled.