Fifteen thousand people were evacuated Wednesday from a 500 m cordon around the Rué de la Republique, Saint-Denis’s main shopping district, and home to several low-budget stores. The low-rent apartments above the shops have drawn thousands of tenants, many of them recent immigrants or illegal migrants.
“Police made us move out of the house early in the morning,” said Aminul Islam, a Bangladesh-born immigrant who works in a store. “My wife is terrified. She wants us to go back to Bangladesh with our daughters.”
The one-room apartment the suspected terrorists occupied was a decrepit squat, offered at very low rent. “I told them (his tenants) the room didn’t have a mattress,” the landlord said while being taken away, “but they said they just wanted to use it to pray.”
Saint-Denis is France’s most immigrant-dense area, the majority of its population made up of Africans, Arabs and South Asians. It has also one of the highest unemployment rates for young people, estimated at over 20 per cent. In 2013, staff at Saint Denis’s employment agency went on strike, complaining that each of the 20 counsellors had a case-load of over 500 applicants to deal with.
“Twenty percent of them do not speak French,” one reportedly said. “There is, sadly, not a lot we can do for them.”
Many unemployed young men from second-generation immigrant families have turned to crime — a common phenomenon in France, where 60 per cent of the prison population is believed to belong to Muslim families. The town sees regular gang violence, often linked to the narcotics trade.
“First when I heard the firing,” said Malian-origin resident Sidi Traore, “I thought some sort of gang war had broken out. I had never thought we’d have terrorists living here.”
Where it took place, a Slice of french history
Saint-Denis, site of the police raid, is one of France’s most historic places. French kings were crowned and buried through the centuries in the famed Basilica of Saint Denis.
Legend has it that after Saint Denis was executed in Montmartre, his corpse carried its head north. He eventually dropped it in the spot where he wanted to be buried, and where the basilica was eventually built.
The construction of the Gothic structure started in 1136, but centuries of religious wars and political unrest led to the abbey’s gradual decline. In 1793, the revolutionaries attacked the symbols of the monarchy but the basilica managed to escape total destruction. Napoleon ordered its restoration in 1806.
STADE DE FRANCE
France’s national football and rugby stadium, built for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, stands here. The stadium was among the sites attacked.
AREA: 12 sq km
POPULATION: 118,000 inhabitants — including a large Muslim community — of 130 nationalities, mostly Africans, Arabs and South Asians
UNEMPLOYMENT: 20%, compared with 10% nationally