PARIS – It was bad enough when France learned that the minute of silence for victims of the nation's deadliest terror attacks in decades was not respected by all students. Some children contested it, others walked out. But when an 8-year old Muslim boy proclaimed, "I am with the terrorists," the alarm bells sounded at full strength.
The chilling call from a child so young brought into stark relief the divide between mainstream France and a portion of the Muslim population, often from neglected neighborhoods. But the official reaction — hauling the boy into the police station for questioning — also triggered debate, with many seeing it as a sign of mounting hysteria.
The fierce official backlash against expressions of Muslim extremism in the wake of this month's Paris terror attacks stems in part from the sheer numbers of homegrown jihadis. More French have embraced jihad in Syria and Iraq than in any other European country — over 1,000. Dozens of these fighters have returned, feeding fears they could turn their battle skills on France. In early January, those fears were realized, as three Frenchmen with links to Islamic extremists went on their murderous rampage, killing journalists at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, a policewoman, a policeman and shoppers at a kosher grocery store.
The French government is desperate to prevent more bloodshed. This week, it started a "stop jihad" website that mimics the media tactics of the Islamic State group luring youth to the battlefront — while, crucially, adding a dose of real-life warnings about what the siren calls from Syria can mean. They range from being killed far from home to having a role in massacres of children.
President Francois Hollande held a day-long emergency meeting on Thursday with school officials, associations and mayors of poor suburbs with crime-infested housing projects — widely believed to also be filled with potential jihadis. The government is trying to devise a plan to bridge the divide between the haves and have-nots and bring the values that define French citizenship, notably equality and secularism, to this parallel world.
The pronouncement by the 8-year-old at a school in Nice in support of the terrorists who killed 17 people this month illustrates how the issues that divide may be seeded long before adolescence.
Police interrogated the boy and his father on Wednesday after the school director informed them of the Jan. 9 incident.
"I said, my son, do you know what terrorism is. He said, 'No,'" the father, Mohamed Kebabsa, said later on French television. He said he told his son the killings were "barbaric ... not an act of Islam."
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has tried to tamp down the controversy over the child's interrogation, backing the school director's decision to refer the matter to police. She has said that up to 200 incidents of disrupting the minute of silence had been brought to her attention — enough to make clear to French officialdom that the values binding the nation together are not shared by all.
France's social fracture has been a problem for decades, and the extent of the divide was revealed during fiery riots in 2005 that hopscotched through the nation's housing projects ringing big cities. The projects began as bedroom suburbs to solve an urban housing crisis, but ended up as enclaves for immigrants from France's former Muslim colonies in Africa and elsewhere.
Today, the problems are being rediscovered and a new emergency treatment ordered up. Hollande is expected to announce new measures for the projects at a Feb. 5 news conference.
The nation has already sunk hundreds of milllions of euros into trying to cure the ills within the heavily immigrant projects, including razing buildings in some neighborhoods and replacing them with town house-style accommodations. But the jobless rate is more than double the national rate of 10 percent, crime is rampant in many neighborhoods and project dwellers are often physically isolated from mainstream life.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, shocking some, used the term "apartheid" to describe the French divide.
At a small cafe in the Montfermeil project Les Bosquets (The Groves), northeast of Paris, about a dozen young men agreed recently that students should have observed the minute of silence — but out of respect for the teachers, not the victims.
"There have been lots of dead and no minute of silence. In Syria, there are airstrikes," said Samir Ouahfi, 29, who has three children. "They say equality, fraternity, but there's none of that. If we speak out we go to prison."
Ouahfi was referring to the scores of arrests since the attacks and urgent court appearances for anyone seen as defending the three terrorists who carried them out. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France denounced the interrogation of a child as symptomatic of the "collective hysteria" gripping France since the attacks.
Latifa Ibn Ziaten, a Muslim whose son Imad, a paratrooper, was the first victim of the terror spree of Islamic radical Mohamed Merah in March 2012, knows the depth of the fracture between mainstream France and youth who grew up on the margins of society. She has been trying to heal it with a human touch, visiting schools and prisons for minors.
Her work was triggered by the anguish of a mother trying to understand the real identity of her son's killer. Her despair deepened when she confronted youth from Merah's neighborhood — who praised him as a "hero of Islam." For her, it felt as if her son was killed a second time — until she understood that "these young people were completely lost."
"Look, Madame, where we live, look how we live ... look at the life we have," she recalled them telling her. "The Republic has forgotten us."
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.