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Les Banlieues: Searching for the seeds of terror

CBSN investigates the policies and conditions that have contributed to radicalism in France
Les Banlieues: Seeds of Terror 08:24

PARIS -- For the residents of Saint-Denis, a suburb outside of Paris, the raids were as bad as the attacks. In the early hours of the morning of Nov. 18, French police converged on a three-story apartment building just off the high street, firing up to 5,000 rounds. They were looking for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national they believe organized the assaults in Paris that killed 130 people and injured scores more five days earlier.

Neighbors didn't know what was happening. They awoke to the sounds of gunfire.

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"It was a police operation, but it was like a terrorist attack," said Julien Villain, an 18-year-old resident with a French mother and Moroccan father. "In my opinion, if it was in a richer neighborhood, I don't think the police would have take the same choice ... grenading and shooting like madness."

But Saint-Denis is not a rich neighborhood.

It's what the French call a "banlieue."

Literally translated, the word means "suburb," but it has come to be associated with the depressed, mostly immigrant neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city where unemployment is high and opportunity scarce.

"If you look at the situation of people, you understand the path they have taken to become a terrorist or whatever you call it," Villain told CBS News correspondent Vladmir Duthiers. "Exclusion makes the terrorist, in my opinion."

If marginalization is an ingredient for radicalization, it's one ISIS has been able to capitalize on, recruiting thousands of Westerners to join their ranks in Syria and Iraq. At least six of the Paris attackers were French nationals.

The French government does not keep statistics based on race or religion, but surveys have found unemployment is as high as 30 percent in these immigrant neighborhoods.

Felix Marquardt, a convert to Islam whose efforts at reform have made him a target of extremists, said there is hardcore discrimination against Muslims -- especially men.

"Muslims in France are poorer on average than the rest of the population. Their kids go to schools that are not as high quality as the rest of the population. They live in neighborhoods that are not as nice as the rest of the population," he said. "The truth of the matter is, it sucks to be a Muslim in France."

In the shadow of a massive public housing tower in a neighborhood called "Cities 4000," a group of young men with parents from Mali told us they prefer their crumbling sidewalks and rundown buildings to the nicer parts of Paris. When they venture into the city, they say, people look away.

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"I'm not even going to look at them in the eye. Some of them, they're probably not racist, but I can't tell the difference," said a young man in an athletic jacket. "I don't know. Maybe they're afraid. I don't know."

They told us about friends who didn't get jobs because they had Muslim-sounding names. One man said his dream is to be the chief of the airport (a prestigious government job) but he didn't think it would every happen because of where he comes from and the color of his skin.

In 2005, France experienced widespread rioting in immigrant neighborhoods. Starting in the banlieues around Paris and spreading to cities including Dijon and Marseilles, Muslim youth burned cars and broke windows in protest of what they said was systematic discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of police.

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Since then, some of the banlieues have taken steps to clean up their image. Villain and his friends took us to an area near the train station in Saint-Denis that used to be an open-air market for drugs. Now, vendors sell meat and peanuts roasted on upside-down shopping carts. Families take walks. The view of the river from the bridge can hold its own against anything on the Champs Elysee.

But the terrorist attacks have been a setback. In addition to racism and religious prejudice, Muslim immigrant populations in France now face perceived guilt by association. They worry that if employers see "Saint-Denis" in the address block of a resume, they will simply throw it away.

"The worst part is, when France was attacked by terrorists, the terrorists don't make a difference between Arab people, between African people, between European people," Villain said in the shadow of the French National Stadium, where two terrorists activated suicide vests. "But when we live in France, all the politics make the difference between people. We can't fight terrorism if, at the beginning, we're not united."

Vladimir Duthiers discusses "Les Banlieues"

Posted by CBSN on Monday, January 18, 2016
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