The Jewish school of Ohr Torah in the southern French city of Toulouse resembles a military camp. It’s surrounded by a fence four meters high and topped with barbed wire. French soldiers guard the building around the clock. In 2012, Mohammed Merah, who was French and whose parents had Algerian roots, killed a rabbi and three children here in the first terrorist attack in France after 15 years of peace.
“Five years on the French state still grants us this protection, which shows that something isn’t right,” said Marc Fridman, regional spokesman of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions. The south of France, especially the region between Toulouse and Montpellier in the southwest, is seen as a breeding ground for terrorism. More than half the country’s anti-terrorism raids take place here.
But the spate of attacks that have hit France since 2012, haven’t been confined to this region. Paris saw atrocities in January and November 2015, and last July a Tunisian-born devotee of Islamic State killed 86 people in the southern city of Nice when he drove his truck along a seafront promenade.
“The French state has closed its eyes to these problems for too long. ”
As if a reminder of the threat were needed, police in the southern port of Marseille, France’s second-biggest city, on Tuesday arrested two Frenchmen accused of planning an “imminent and violent attack” ahead of the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, France’s interior minister said.
They may have been targeting conservative candidate François Fillon, said terrorism expert Olivier Guitta. Rifles and explosives were found in their homes.
Often, the suspects are born in France and have an immigrant background. Muslims make up around a quarter of the population along France’s western Mediterranean coast, far more than the national average of 7.5 percent. In many cases, the country’s failure to integrate them is coming back to haunt it, and is a major battleground in the election campaign.
The second and third generations of immigrants are angry, said Tareq Oubrou, the popular, reform-minded main imam of Bordeaux. They’re angry that their parents and grandparents were “parked” in districts outside cities, often segregated by nationality, only to be accused today of creating parallel cultures, he said.
Drug dealing is rife in many of these districts, and terror cells are usually linked with crimes such as drug or arms dealing, said Christophe Miette, regional spokesman for the police union SCSI in the Toulouse region.
“France has, to this day, learned nothing from the attacks,” he said. “What’s missing is fundamental educational reform.” Children attending schools in problem districts find it much harder to get a job. Almost one young person in two in the suburbs is unemployed.
But often, they’re at fault themselves, according to El Janati Abderrahim, who represents the Muslim community in Toulouse. “Some don’t look for work,” he said. In the city, 80 percent of mosques were moderate, he insisted. “But some preach violence — and we name those.”
Mr. Abderrahim is a member of a regional committee that brings together representatives from all faiths and government officials. The city’s Muslims want to avoid being tarnished and are helping to root out fanatics.
He said the terrorist attacks had made the city administration more attuned to the needs of the Muslim community and more ready to cooperate with them.
“The French state has closed its eyes to these problems for too long,” said Mr. Miette, the police spokesman.
Anyone who uses a Kalashnikov rifle for drugs could one day use it in a terror attack.
The problem is that many children or grandchildren of immigrants feel torn between two cultures. Some of the first generation barely speak French even after decades living in the county, and have lost their status as role models to children who have attended French schools and speak the language fluently. The drug trade drives a further wedge between the generations. As the parents lose control, the children fall prey to radical Islamists more easily.
The police are monitoring 300 potential terrorists in and around Toulouse. Some 40 have left to join the civil war in Syria since 2011, and some of them have returned.
The failed integration of immigrants is also a central issue in Marseille, home to an estimated 380,000 Muslims or around 43 percent of the population. The drug trade is flourishing in the suburbs, with estimated revenues of €10 million to €12 million every month.
The drugs come from North Africa, and paradoxically, the strict regime of the drug clans appears to be preventing young people from becoming radicalized, at least according to social worker Badra Latreche. “In our city criminal networks ensure discipline among youths,” she said.
The organized crime bosses are too intent on earning cash from the drugs trade to allow gang members to join jihad. So far, there have been no terrorist attacks in Marseille. Police say that only three to four people have left the city to train in territories held by Islamic State.
The sociologist and political scientist Vincent Geisser doesn’t attribute this calm to the discipline of organized crime. He said it was due to imams exerting control in the local mosques and cooperating with police.
But even Marseille isn’t immune, as the thwarted terror plan has shown. Anyone who uses a Kalashnikov rifle for drugs could one day use it in a terror attack, said Mr. Geisser. Marseille has strong historic links with the Arab world, which creates potential for terrorism, he said.
Police estimate that some 40 to 50 people in Marseille are potential terrorists — a tiny fraction of the 10,500 French people deemed a possible threat to national security. “We must be on our guard,” said Mr. Geisser.
Sandra Louven is the associate head of the Companies and Markets section at Handelsblatt. Pierre Heumann previously worked as a financial editor, then became a correspondent for the Middle East in 1993. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org