France’s Greatest Security Challenge: The Identity Crisis

By: Anastasia Beck

Often such images feed into the media’s negative narrative of the Parisian suburbs.
Often such images feed into the media’s negative narrative of the Parisian suburbs.

In only two years, France has suffered four terrorist attacks–two in Paris and one each in Nice and Rouen–in which 229 people died. The perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Cherif and Said and one of the perpetrators of the November attacks, Samy Amimour, had lived in the infamous suburbs of Paris – ‘la banlieue’. Since the attacks, the focus of media and government has shifted towards these areas which are prone to high levels of crime and now appear to be potential hotbeds for radicalisation.[1]  The process of radicalisation is a multifaceted one, but the issue of the ‘identity crisis’ as a precursor to radicalisation is one that  particularly emanates from ‘la banlieue’.  This identity crisis is a sense of a lack of belonging to one’s country of origin and one’s country of domicile.

France is home to numerous immigrant communities, many of whom live in the suburbs  of Paris due to the low cost of living; however, these suburbs are known for being riddled with poverty, unemployment, substandard educational opportunities, and crime.  Unemployment in such  suburbs is at a record 40 percent, compared to the average of under 10 percent in France.[2],[3]

Second-generation immigrants living in these suburbs face a degree of social discrimination given that schools in these areas tend to perform at lower levels than France’s national average. This is partly due to teachers preferring to be allocated to schools in more affluent areas, resulting in a lack of school teachers to accommodate a large suburban population.  Coupled with a lack of attention to individual students, children remain disincentivised to excel academically. This puts suburban youths at a competitive disadvantage in attaining university places in France.

Such problems are exacerbated when individuals from ‘la banlieue’ look for work as well. For long, employers have been known to discriminate against applicant addresses that are located in ‘la banlieue‘. This is partly caused by the nature of the media’s portrayal of the suburbs – often only reporting on them when there are riots, murders, or cars set alight.[5]  The basis for discrimination also extends to the names of the applicants.  Many immigrant communities living in les banlieues originate from North Africa and the Middle East, and employers often disregard applicants with minority-sounding names.[6]

The Kouachi brothers were known to have lived in ‘la banlieue’.
The Kouachi brothers were known to have lived in ‘la banlieue’.

People living in the suburbs feel shunned by society and are unable to adopt a French identity. Additionally, children of immigrants may have had little contact with their family’s country of origin. When a terrorist organisation recruits individuals, they are able to provide a sense of belonging to people who suffer from such an identity crisis.[8]  Recruiters entice people by offering them solidarity and a feeling of camaraderie.  Through this subtle process of radicalisation, these suburban residents turn to terrorism.

Government funding could be directed towards the upkeep of the suburbs, which are known for being unpleasant places to live in. Better housing and environment would boost morale and encourage the residents of the suburbs to look after the buildings and green spaces, and instil a sense of communal pride amongst the residents.

Funding can also be directed towards establishing youth programmes.  Sports centres, such as rugby or football clubs, community work, or working with government authorities will drive youngsters to interact frequently and partake in community activities. Currently, levels of criminality and drug-selling are rampant as many youths partake in such activities as a means of income. Youth programmes will encourage individuals to ‘stay off the streets’ and engage in legal activities. Working with government authorities may help alleviate the binary notions of  ‘us versus them.’ Otherwise, young adults from immigrant families may feel targeted by police because of their religion or skin colour, which may push them further towards radicalisation.[9] Exposure to authorities in a positive manner can help build a constructive relationship. Furthermore, police and law enforcement agencies will also need sensitivity training when approaching immigrant communities and make efforts to engage in a positive dialogue.

Due to the negative broadcasting of the suburbs by the media, the French government should take steps to create a discourse amongst media companies that encourage less biased reporting of ‘la banlieue’ to allow a wider audience to be positively exposed to the suburbs, helping to shift social perceptions of ‘la banlieue’.

By creating an environment where citizens of ‘la banlieue’ do not face discrimination based on their address and feeling part of a community which is fully integrated into French life, young adults may  identify more with France.  This will make it harder for recruiters to reach out to these individuals. If France hopes to contain this security threat in the long-term, it must persist with these measures.

Anastasia Beck is a postgraduate student with Intelligence and International Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London (KCL).  She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from King’s and has studied at the National University of Singapore and the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).  Anastasia’s research interests include counter-radicalisation, the role of intelligence in both peace and conflict, and the impacts of migration, both at the macro- and micro-levels.  She can be reached via email at or


[1] C. Ruffini ‘Les Banlieue: Searching for the Seeds of Terror’ CBS News (Jan 2016)

[2] F. Keane ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: the suburbs and the suspects’ BBC News (Jan 2015)

[3] ‘France Unemployment Rate’ Trading Economics (July 2016)

[4] ‘Forgotten in the banlieues’ The Economist (Feb 2013)

[5] G. Packer “The Other France: Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism?” The New Yorker (Aug 2015)

[6] France’s Muslim Men Suffer CV Discrimination’ The Local FR (Oct 2015)

[7] C. Bremner ‘Battle of the banlieue: The French intifada by Andrew Hussey’ New Statesman (March 2014)

[8] D. Al Raffie ‘Social Identity Theory for Investigating Islamic Extremism in the Diaspora’ Journal of Strategic Security Vol.6 No. 4 (2013)

[9] A. Hamza ‘France struggles to address racial profiling by police’ France 24 (Oct 2013)

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