when someone gets hurt, they will blame Muslims as usual.” His friends provided a chorus of support; this was another appalling attempt to provoke and insult their religion and their community.
The object of their wrath was the new edition of Charlie Hebdo, the first since 12 people were murdered in an attack on the magazine’s office. The cover shows a cartoon of the Prophet Mohamed with the headline: “All is forgiven”. It was carried by some media outlets today.
Forgiveness, however, was in short supply among these young men. “They know what they are doing and they must take the consequences” was the verdict of Ahmed. The group of five, aged between 17 and 21, did not look dissimilar to the millions of Frenchmen who took part in the solidarity march on Sunday. But the grey street corner where they stood was in La Courneave, a wretched banlieue just 15 minutes’ drive from the capital, but a very long way away from the secular ideals of the Republic.
As memorial services took place for some of those who had died in the terror attacks, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Education Minister, held a meeting with teaching officials in response to the many schoolchildren in Muslim areas who had refused to observe a minute’s silence. At a secondary school in Seine-Saint-Denis, more than 80 per cent of the pupils refused to comply, saying the Charlie Hebdo staff had “deserved what they got”. In Lille, a boy threatened to shoot “with a Kalashnikov” a teacher who had asked a class to be quiet during the remembrance.These instances may just have been the bravado of schoolchildren, but the bitterness and disillusionment among some in the Muslim community, especially, among the young, runs deep. Walid not only felt contempt towards those who wore “Je suis Charlie” badges but also those who wore the ones saying “Je suis Ahmed”, in memory of Ahmed Merabat who was murdered on the street outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices. Mr Merabat was one of the three police officers posthumously awarded the Légion d’honneur by François Hollande.
Many Muslims who felt hurt by the magazine’s mocking of the Prophet had worn the badges for a police officer who defended the right of free speech even when it offended his religion. “That police officer had joined a force which oppressed Muslim people, these people should feel shame,” declared 21 year old Walid, the third generation of a family with Algerian roots.
Other young men had drifted over to join the conversation. None of them would serve the French state, they claimed. Some spoke of their admiration for those who had gone to fight jihad abroad: a few displayed knowledge of firearms and also about the various rebel groups in Syria; the differences, for instance, between Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ansar al-Islam.
The common factor among the young men was not just their antipathy towards the French state and society, but also that none of them were currently in regular employment. “I used to work as a builder, I was earning good money, but that ended. Whenever they want to lay off people, it’s the ones who are not white who are the first to go,” insisted 19-year-old Karim.
An older man, 64-year-old Mahmoud Hannachi, wanted me to show how depressed economically the area had become. “Look, these have been shut for months, this is nothing to do with what happened last week.”
The funeral of murdered police officer Ahmed Merabet takes place at a muslim cemetery in Bobigny, France (Getty)
He was dismayed that Charlie Hebdo would caricature Prophet Mohamed again, and also that the cartoon was being reproduced abroad. “I have seen that they are now showing it in America, in Britain. Why are they doing this? Don’t the people in Europe and America know how offensive this is to Islam?”
Mr Hannachi grew up hearing stories from his family about religious and ethnic murders. The victims then were Muslims – Algerians taking part in a protest march in 1961 in Paris attacked by the police. Dead bodies floated in the Seine. After 37 years of denial the French government acknowledged in 1998 that 40 had been killed, although that figure is believed to be closer to 200.
“Now you have young Muslim men fighting back. I am not saying the killings last week were right, no, not at all” he stressed. “But young men nowadays, not just Muslims, seem to be very angry and when they are angry, they act without wisdom.”
I found the young men I had met earlier still on the street corner. They had gone to get a copy of Libération, which carried the forthcoming Charlie Hebdo Mohamed cartoon. They wanted to burn it in front of other members of the media who may come along. But they were disappointed, they could not find any. The newspaper had sold out.