Around midnight on a Saturday in late November, in the tiny hillside village of Crépol in southeastern France, five carloads of young men showed up at a one-room recreation center where a dance was letting out and started stabbing people. By the time they were done, 17 partygoers had been injured. Three were on their way to intensive care. One, a chubby 16-year-old rugby player named Thomas Perotto, died of his wounds while being rushed to the hospital. The assailants managed to flee. It happened so quickly that people thought they had witnessed some kind of terrorist attack. They may have witnessed something worse. France’s newspapers differ on a few details—whether one of the attackers had earlier been mocked for his long hair, whether anyone announced they had come to stab white people, whether Crépol is a nest of the far right—but all treat the incident as an opening episode in what sounds like an inter-ethnic conflict.
Over the past several weeks, the incident at Crépol has changed French attitudes toward everything: a new law that claims to crack down on immigration, the war in Gaza, next spring’s European Union elections, and the prospects for radical politics of all kinds.
Nine young men were arrested days after the stabbings, several of them having fled to Toulouse, 250 miles away. They turned out to come from a drug-ridden housing project called La Monnaie, half an hour’s drive from Crépol. It sits on the opposite side of the nearest city, Romans-sur-Isère, home to about 30,000 people.
Four-thousand people live in La Monnaie, many of them descended from the North African and African immigrants who began arriving in France in the 1950s and ’60s. The place used to be bigger. Over the last decade and a half, the French state has dynamited three 15-story towers built there in the 1970s, two of them named after the writers Honoré de Balzac and François Mauriac, one of them called simply “The Gladioli.” They turned out to be easily convertible into gang strongholds, like elevator-dependent high-rise welfare housing the world over. Now the residents live in smaller, flower-themed blocks: “The Fuchsias,” “The Mimosas,” “The Jasmines.” Many are centers of the drug trade, with graffiti spray painted above the ramps that lead down into shadowy side entryways: LA MOULA (drugs), LA FRAPE (resin).
It’s violent there. Just since the end of summer, there have been seven confrontations between large groups of youths and the police.
The nine suspects from La Monnaie, six adults and three minors, are Frenchmen, not foreigners—a fact that news outlets have stressed in the weeks since the stabbings. But there’s French, and there’s French. You can’t ordinarily publish the surnames of young criminal suspects in France, but the given names are released as a matter of course: Pierre A. is suspected of shoplifting, Jean B. has been arraigned for disturbing the peace, and so on. This time, however, it took days after the arrests before the conservative Journal de Dimanche released the kids’ names. They were Chaïd, Ilyes, Yasir, Nassir, Kouider, Yanis, Fayçal, Mathys, and Kaïs. And that was not all. “To get this information,” JDD columnist Charlotte d’Ornellas wrote, “we had to make insistent demands, and we noted the fear of all the authorities who were in a position to deliver it.”
In France, the question of given names has long been a political hot potato. In 2011, the novelist Richard Millet caused a literary scandal when he argued that parents who gave their children Muslim names were refusing to assimilate into France. In 2022, the presidential candidate Éric Zemmour proposed requiring parents to choose baby names from an official register of French ones. And now, in the wake of the Crépol stabbings, a resident of La Monnaie named Karim N. appeared on TikTok, claiming to be close to the suspects and embodying the worst Zemmourian fears: “Personally, I like this country,” Karim said. “You need a doctor? Free. You need a dentist? Free. I like France. It’s the French I don’t like. It’s the racist French I don’t like. Kind of the way I like the Jews but don’t like the Zionists. Same thing.”
For decades, housing projects in France’s banlieues have been the sites of all kinds of violence, both barbarous and purposeful. The public has grown a bit numbed by it. Why did people suddenly snap to attention after the stabbings in Crépol? First of all, the city of Romans is the furthest thing from a shithole, to use the statesman’s expression. For many decades, it was the capital of French footwear manufacture—there used to be 200 shoemakers here, and locals claim one of them invented the ladies’ pump. The industry mostly collapsed in the 1960s and ’70s. Unlike most other French cities that have de-industrialized, though, Romans is so beautiful that it thrives as a vacation spot. Just north of Avignon, not too far west of Grenoble, at the foot of the jagged peaks of the Vercors, it sits next to a fast-moving river that roars out of the Alps, about an hour’s drive away. Its restaurants serve a delicious local ravioli.
French people understand quite well that dangerous migrant neighborhoods ring all of the country’s major cities. But there remains a hard-to-shake faith in la France éternelle, and a confidence that unrest will never spread too far from the slums. That assumption has been shaken from time to time. Individual Jews have been singled out for violence at the hands of ethnic gangs this century. The cellphone salesman Ilan Halimi was tortured to death over 24 days by an African-led band in 2009. In 2017, a Malian drug dealer broke into the fourth-floor apartment of the retired doctor Sarah Attal-Halimi, beat her senseless, and threw her out the window to her death. French people could tell themselves that these were special cases. Maybe they had to do with the Middle East or something. There were rationalizations for terrorism, too. When terrorists linked to Islamic State killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015, including 90 by machine-gun fire during a rock concert at the Bataclan theater … well … well, big cities are dangerous. Crépol, by contrast, is the sort of rustic place where people played rugby, not soccer, where they went fishing instead of dancing. If you could stand the boredom in a place like that, you could live in the same France your grandparents did. Now it, too, had been invaded by a war party from this second France.
“The political establishment at first took no notice of the death of Thomas Perotto.”
In the wake of the stabbings, the indignation was immediate and spontaneous. The eloquent centrist mayor of Romans, Marie-Hélène Thoraval, went on one talk show after another to demand that the “racist character” of the attacks be taken into account. She also complained of a double standard. In June, police had stopped Nahel Merzouk, a teenager with a long arrest record, in a stolen Mercedes that he had been driving recklessly through Nanterre, west of Paris. When he tried to drive off, they shot him dead. A week of wild and violent rioting followed, and the French political establishment took it as a cue to have an American-style “racial reckoning.” The leadership of the National Assembly called for a minute of silence on Nahel’s behalf, reminiscent of the Democratic leadership’s “taking a knee” during the George Floyd riots. “So a few months later,” Thoraval explained to JDD, “when French people saw such a radically different treatment for Thomas, they flew into a rage.” Radically different was right: The political establishment at first took no notice of the death of Thomas Perotto.
The French are reassessing their 2023 racial reckoning much as Americans did theirs of 2020: A superficially progressive initial reaction has been followed by a profoundly conservative shift. Double standards are the main theme: Ethnic minorities can burn down whole neighborhoods and be treated with indulgence, people say. But when the yellow-vest protesters marched against high gas prices in 2018 and 2019, or when young environmentalists camped out against agribusiness last spring, they faced rubber bullets. Perotto’s death brought not just a memorial march of 6,000 through the streets of Crépol, but also an angry march through the middle of La Monnaie by dozens of young men shouting, “Justice for Thomas!” They didn’t do much damage—one of the marchers, isolated from the group, was even thrashed by locals. But those arraigned for that march were serving jail time before the week was out.
Still, President Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister, Élisabeth Bourne, were spooked. When government spokesman Olivier Véran visited Crépol a week after the crime, a local resident in a yellow vest hollered “Shame!” at him in front of the cameras. Interviewed on national television, this man, “André,” announced that everybody knew what the result of this case would be in a few short months or years: Perotto would be forgotten, and the kids who killed him would be out of jail. “Shame on the ministers in all these governments,” André said. “They always defend the France of the housing projects against Thomas’s France, rural France, the France that raises its kids decently, that doesn’t bring them up to hate France and French people.”
The next day, the National Assembly observed a minute of silence in Perotto’s memory.
Events in Crépol raised the pressure on Macron to do something about immigration. Yes, yes, fine, the troublemakers in La Monnaie were Frenchmen, not immigrants. But they were the type of Frenchman that immigration produces more of, and even Macron’s centrist voters were beginning to think that the country no longer had the material resources to afford them. La Monnaie accounted for 12 percent of the population of Romans but absorbed 45 percent of its educational budget, Thoraval, the mayor, said. Here as elsewhere, the nation’s resources were being drained out of its middle-class households and poured into its slums.
Macron had been working for a year to pass an immigration-reform bill. He would need it if his Renaissance party were to prosper in the June 2024 elections for the European Parliament. In this sense, France’s politics works like that of other big Western democracies. France used to have two main parties—Socialists and Republicans. But after the 1980s, both parties’ leaderships cozied up to the rich of the global economy, offering voters less and less of what they had been voting for: socialism in the case of the Socialists, national sovereignty in the case of the Republicans. It took the public a generation to catch on, but by now, most voters have drifted towards opposition parties of the sort that elites have long described as extremist, particularly Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed (LFI). Eventually, the elites of the two old mainstream parties discovered they had too few votes to govern with, and could survive only by merging. Macron, a former investment banker who served as a pro-business economy minister in a Socialist government, was the ideal candidate to preside over such a fusion. He won a big majority in the legislative elections of 2017. But the extremes continued to surge. Although Macron won re-election in 2022, he lost 100 seats in the assembly and his majority along with them. Now he must lean on the 60-odd votes of the old Republicans and the 30-odd votes of the old Socialists to get things enacted.
“There have been 28 immigration bills advanced since the early 1980s.”
In France as elsewhere, immigration reform is a political panacea for parties of the center. There have been 28 immigration bills advanced since the early 1980s, and they all tend to follow the same model: They promise natives a “crackdown” on migrants and promise migrants a long list of rights. The result is a more hostile rhetorical climate (creating tensions all around) and a border that is, in practice, more open (generating demand for next year’s immigration bill).
This year’s version was a typically schizoid measure, with provisions pointing in every ideological direction: cuts in benefits for immigrants, a path to citizenship for immigrants, a hard ceiling on immigration, license to ignore that ceiling for “professions under stress,” a restoration of the crime of “illegal residence,” a removal of the jail sentence that used to accompany the crime of illegal residence, and so on. It was too harsh for LFI and too soft for RN, both of which saw the measure as the trick it was. It should still have sailed through with Republican votes. But then came Crépol.
Le Pen’s party, the hardest-line anti-immigrant force in the assembly, had been rising steadily in the polls since at least last summer’s riots. Even when it was the highest-polling party in the country, as it is now, all the other parties had excluded it from any substantive role in the assembly, erecting a cordon sanitaire around Le Pen. The other parties, which liked to style themselves the “republican arc,” wouldn’t advance any legislation that required the votes of the National Front, as the RN was called in the old days. They claimed the party was a “threat to democracy.”
This has never been true. Certainly, the party harvested the resentments sowed by the losing causes of the 20th century: Vichy. Colonialism. Opposition to the European Union. Certainly the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of the present leader, had engaged in Jew-baiting. But the party was democratic. It had never proposed taking power by a coup d’état. Today, Marine Le Pen had reformed it to the point where it was overwhelmingly the preferred party of the French working class—a decidedly middle-of-the-road tendency. Amid the Gaza war, it was proving resolutely pro-Israel.
In December, Le Monde, the liberal paper of record, found that a 45 percent plurality of the French no longer believed this threat-to-democracy stuff. Until 2019, the French were inclined to see the RN as a “nationalist and xenophobic extreme right,” rather than a “patriotic right attached to traditional values.” Now attitudes had flipped. A majority (51 percent) of Macron’s own voters consider the RN patriots; 73 percent of Republicans thought the same. Republicans were in a pickle. If they voted an immigration bill that the RN considered a fraud, they would get massacred in next spring’s European elections. They might even disappear as a party. The Republicans decided to oppose the bill. Suddenly, Macron was 40 votes short.
Now the centrist Macron faced a reckoning. He needed the bill, and there were simply no votes to be had from LFI. So the government spent the month after the Crépol attacks strengthening the bill until it satisfied the Republicans. The bill passed on Dec. 19.
But something even more important had happened in the process. At some point in the course of negotiations, the bill became strong enough for the RN lawmakers, who claimed it vindicated their calls for “national preference.” On Dec. 19, they voted for it unanimously. Seemingly disgusted at the prospect of voting on the same side as Le Pen on anything, 20 of Macron’s more progressive party members decided to reject the bill, and 17 abstained. But in so doing, they accidentally broke the cordon sanitaire. The loss of those 37 votes caused the final tally without the 88 votes of the RN to fall below 289. This means France has now, for the first time, passed a major piece of legislation that owes its majority to Le Pen’s party.
Twenty years ago, when France led the Western opposition to the US war in Iraq, its whole strategic orientation seemed to be in flux. So heavy was the pressure of Muslim immigration that it was easy to imagine France would have to pursue a more Arab-friendly foreign policy in the coming decades. And yet in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7, Macron’s government lit up the Eiffel Tower in the colors of the Israeli flag and effectively banned pro-Hamas demonstrations. Why hasn’t the “Eurabian” transformation come to pass?
Crépol gives part of the answer, according to Zemmour. In an interview with the Paris-based monthly Causeur, he claimed to detect, for the first time since the Six Day War of 1967, a deep French sympathy for the Jewish state and even likened the attack in Crépol to the one on Kibbutz Kfar Aza on on Oct. 7. “The same war of civilizations that is burning Kfar Aza,” he explained, “is also burning Crépol.”
That is strongly put, but one can see why Zemmour might find affinities. Unlike most Western Jewish communities, France’s is more Sephardi than Ashkenazi. Many families, including Zemmour’s, arrived from North Africa in the wake of France’s bloody imperial defeat in Algeria in the early 1960s. Armed conflict in the Arab world was a preoccupation even in the old country. Many Frenchmen have noted resemblance between the Re’im rave massacre on Oct. 7 and the Bataclan killings of 2015. The French public hasn’t been especially receptive to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, through which the Western left has sought to pressure Israel, nor to public demonstrations of support for the Palestinians of the sort that have become common in Britain.
“France will be close to a fifth Muslim by the middle of this century.”
But that doesn’t make demographic change any less a reality in France, and perhaps the long-threatened Middle Eastern-ization of French political life is at last becoming visible. The Pew Center estimates that, assuming moderate migration in the coming years, France will be close to a fifth Muslim by the middle of this century. Over the past decade, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the eloquent 72-year-old leader of LFI, appears to have decided that that bloc will be his base.
Like the progressive members of The Squad in the United States, Mélenchon is woke. In the last presidential election, he was the most popular candidate among voters under 24. But he is not just woke. His traditional political family is that of the left of the Socialist Party, the brassy, radically democratic part of it that has tended to be as hostile to the European Union as Marine Le Pen is. He quit the party in 2008—earlier than most—when it became clear that it was more interested in serving chic professionals than the working people who had built it. Under his leadership, LFI has fought hard for people who often go unrepresented—for instance, health workers who were dismissed from their posts for refusing to be vaccinated against Covid and who, despite a shortage of medical workers, were not rehired until May 2023. Though a bit out of step with the working class, the LFI continues to vie for its allegiance. The yellow vests were mostly Marine Le Pen’s people, but many were fond of Mélenchon.
But when it comes to the Muslim cause, Mélenchon has decided to burn his boats. On matters of public order, he has evolved. He used to issue familiar secularist denunciations of religious symbols; today he defends (and marches for) the Muslim veil wherever activists want to impose it. On foreign policy, he has made himself France’s chief denouncer of Israel. And this has led him, after Oct. 7, into a process of steady radicalization to which no end is in sight. He doesn’t describe Hamas as a terrorist organization. When the veteran journalist Ruth Elkrief attacked one of his LFI colleagues for holding similar positions, Mélenchon tweeted that she was a “manipulatrice” who “reduces all of political life to her hatred of Muslims.” Elkrief’s great uncle was a prominent Jerusalem rabbi. The minister of the interior placed her under police protection, and Mélenchon was accused of anti-Semitism, at which point he attacked his critics. Communists, Greens, and old Socialists who have been allied with Mélenchon’s movement since the legislative elections of 2022 are now drifting away.
Mélenchon may be the future of the French left. His base is in the universities, especially elite ones like Sciences Po in Paris. But his party has also developed powerful strongholds in certain ethnically mixed areas—in the north around Roubaix and in the northern Paris suburbs of Seine-Saint-Denis. There is, for better and for worse, a tremendous energy in these places. The riots after the death of Nahel Merzouk marked a new politicization of the population in banlieues such as La Monnaie—a population that has heretofore had only a feeble impact on the electoral system. That is why Mélenchon arouses more disquiet than his poll numbers would seem to justify: The communities to which his present appeals are directed are poorly understood and hard to poll or model.
As Americans discovered in 2016, tremendous shifts can happen when a hitherto-unrepresented people irrupts into a stable-looking political system, leaving any people that can’t rally its own forces at risk of being swept away.