‘There are two Trappes,’ Myriam said. ‘There’s the nice bit you’ve seen – with individual houses and gardens – and the bit where we live. If you ever want to come back I can show you around.’ Trappes is a suburban town 30 kilometres west of Paris. Last week, around a hundred women and men marched there in protest against Islamophobia. A few days before, a 16-year-old girl wearing a hijab had reportedly been attacked by two men.
The next day I met Myriam and five of her friends near the police station, where at the end of July more than two hundred young men clashed with police. The unrest was sparked by the arrest of a man accused of assaulting a police officer when his wife was stopped for wearing a full-face veil. Myriam and her friends were all in their twenties or early thirties and wore headcarves and abayas on top of their clothes. We started walking. ‘This is La Commune, la Commune de Paris,’ they said, pointing to an estate named after the revolutionary uprising of 1871. ‘And these, in front, are the new houses.’
Trappes’s Socialist council has been pursuing a fairly aggressive policy aimed at ‘diversifying’ the town’s population. Old council houses were demolished and their inhabitants relocated to nearby towns; new private and right-to-buy housing was built, attracting wealthier residents. According to Samuel Abo, the housing deputy mayor, the aim is to go from 75 per cent social housing to 60 or even 55 per cent. The long-time inhabitants of the town, mostly immigrants or children of immigrants, watched as new buildings they couldn’t afford to live in went up while the repairs they had been waiting for decades for never came.
When repairs are done, ‘it’s always cosmetic, always on the surface of the buildings, and on the ground floor, but it stops between the ground floor and the first floor,’ one of the women says. In the stairwells of several buildings, I see new tiling that stops between the ground and first floors. Other buildings, which used to have two exits, now have only one, so that people can’t escape when they’re being chased by the police.
Trappes had 28,945 inhabitants in 2012, many of them from Italy, Portugal or Cap-Vert. The women showing me round were all daughters of immigrants from the Maghreb or West Africa. They’d studied at the local high schools, which they said were quite bad. Those who’d gone to university said they had more trouble finding internships or jobs than if they had been white. If their parents were Muslim by tradition, for their generation it’s a choice. Their parents generally disapproved when they started wearing a hijab. ‘Our parents learned to go unnoticed. We saw them being humiliated, saying: “Yes Sir, yes Sir.” But we didn’t want to act like that. We are French. We went to l’école de la République. We want to have the right to practise our religion.’
But if, as they say, turning to Islam has made them happier, anti-veil legislation and growing Islamophobia have made their lives increasingly difficult. ‘There are lots of jobs we can’t do,’ said one. ‘There was racism before the laws banning the veil were passed but it was hidden. The laws seem to have liberated it. Some guys are now up to playing Zorro in the street.’ The women have been called ‘bats’ and ‘Darth Vader’, and told to go back to their country. ‘But what country? This is my country.’
They told me that the abuse sometimes comes from the police, especially the brigade anti-criminalité, whose members are generally white and from provincial areas of France. The women told me of racist and Islamophobic insults, arbitrary stops and searches, beatings. During the riots in Trappes a 14-year-old boy lost an eye, probably to a flash-ball shot. The local branch of Copwatch spotted racist and Islamophobic comments made by members of the police in a private group on Facebook. Two of the people commenting were working in Trappes at the time. They are currently under investigation. When the interior minister, Manuel Valls, visited Trappes after the riots, a woman was filmed telling him about the difficulties created by the town’s housing policy and about police abuse. He dismissed her, praising the work of the police.
We reached the small square in the Van Gogh neighbourhood where the 16-year-old girl is believed to have been assaulted. She said two men dragged her into an alley, pulled her veil, hurt and insulted her, and threatened her with a boxcutter. She said they left in their car after a man cycled past. ‘It can’t be someone from here,’ Myriam and her friends said, ‘but it must be someone who knows the neighbourhood.’ There is speculation that it might have been BAC officers, who wear plain clothes and know the area well. Earlier this week the girl is reported to have tried to kill herself by jumping from a fourth-storey window. She sent a text message to her friends, saying she couldn’t take it any more and thought that the police inspector in charge of the investigation was doing ‘all he could not to help her’.
Back in front of the police station, children were playing in a fountain. Tomorrow, the women said, they would like to borrow a car and go swimming in the sea.