GRIGNY, France – The housing project that was home to Amedy Coulibaly is a concrete labyrinth so scary that doctors refuse to make house calls and mail workers won’t deliver parcels. Drug dealers and teenage thugs hold sway over the blighted neighbourhood.
Even the police venture only with caution into the Grande Borne, especially after dark. The project’s maze of serpentine, run-down buildings housing 11,000 people gives gangs plenty of cover to mount ambushes against officers with pump-action shotguns and gasoline bombs.
It would be simplistic to argue that Coulibaly – a partner of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, killer of a policewoman and four hostages at a kosher store – became a terrorist because he grew up in this enclave of high unemployment and crime where the authority of the French state is weak. Many others from the Grande Borne and his generation turned out just fine. One of Coulibaly’s sisters is making her name as a dancer. A former classmate is a financial comptroller, another helps manage the career of 2005 hurdles world champion Ladji Doucoure.
“Our towns are not terrorist factories,” Philippe Rio, the mayor who also grew up in the Grande Borne, insisted in an interview with The Associated Press.
But it was here in what the mayor calls one of France’s “abandoned, difficult territories” that Coulibaly started to veer off the rails as a teenager, graduating from petty crime to armed robberies that set him on a trajectory of multiple spells in prison. Behind bars, he met Cherif Kouachi, one of the Charlie Hebdo assassins, and others with whom he became radicalized.
Built in the 1960s as affordable working-class housing, the Grande Borne now looks like a giant social and architectural mistake. Its lack of roads were intended to make it child-friendly but ended up making it difficult to police. The three, four and five-story blocks with fetid stairwells and dead-ends also make perfect crime hideouts and stashes for drugs.
Poorly served by public transport and cut off by a motorway – as well as its turbulent reputation – the estate was one of the hotspots in a nationwide wave of riots in 2005 that exposed the deep wells of anger in France’s depressed “banlieues,” the suburbs where France built grim projects to house workers from former colonies who provided muscle for France’s postwar growth miracle.
Their children and grandchildren now languish there – with, some say, few ways out.
Monique Vareillaud, Coulibaly’s primary school teacher when he was 8, remembers a kid “just like all the others” but also “the little king” of his large family – the only boy among nine sisters. In a school photo from the following year, Coulibaly is the only pupil leaning forward on his chair, chin resting pensively on the back of his hand, like Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker.”
In his teens, the authority of school and parents began to lose grip on Coulibaly, and crime sank in its claws. His Islamic faith also “was starting to take shape,” said Grande Borne social worker De-Charles Claude Aka. Coulibaly became more dedicated than other neighbourhood kids in attending daily prayers and, on a trip to Disneyland, kept himself apart from the girls, Aka recalled in an AP interview.
Aka lost sight of Coulibaly in 1999. Then suddenly last year, his former charge reappeared in his office, seemingly with something important to say. Whatever it was, Aka failed to tease it out of him. He is now haunted by the idea that Coulibaly may already have been plotting last week’s killing spree, and perhaps could have been reasoned with. Instead, they made small talk.
“To be honest, I kicked myself,” Aka said. “I started to run the film in my head of his visit. He had bulked up so much, become a big boy.”
By then, Coulibaly had done long spells of prison time, with six separate convictions for robbery, armed robbery and drug trafficking and another on terrorism-related charges.
In 2000, when Coulibaly was 18, police shot and killed one of his teenage friends when they were stealing motorbikes together, neighbourhood police say. In a later drama, his lawyer Damien Brossier recounted, Coulibaly’s getaway car plunged off a bridge after he robbed a sports clothing store at gunpoint. Coulibaly coolly carried on as if nothing had happened.
Brossier also defended Coulibaly after he and a friend drove more than 200 kilometres (120 miles) by motorbike to rob a bank and then two cafes. “Quite a hothead,” Brossier said in an AP interview.
Out of prison, Coulibaly became increasingly radicalized, regularly visiting and seeking advice from Djamel Beghal, a convicted terrorist living under surveillance in rural central France. In an Islamic religious ceremony in 2009 not recognized by French law, Coulibaly wed Hayat Boumeddiene, a Frenchwoman of North African origin who, unusually for France, wore an Islamic veil even though doing so cost her job as a cashier. Boumeddiene travelled to Turkey before the Charlie Hebdo attacks and Turkish officials confirm she crossed over into Syria.
Brossier says it is wrong to automatically assume that other criminals like Coulibaly also will also graduate to Islamic terrorism. But, in defending them, he also sees how kids from the wrong side of the tracks in places like the Grande Borne copy older delinquents.
Rather than survive on social welfare like their parents, they get lured by the easy money of drug dealing and crime. Often, the next stop is the huge Fleury-Merogis prison next to the Grande Borne where Coulibaly served time. Coulibaly surreptitiously filmed the prison’s hellish conditions, which then were subsequently exposed in a TV documentary.
“The spiral starts progressively,” Brossier said. “There is a huge waste of potential in these cities.”
Coulibaly’s former kickboxing coach in the Grande Borne, Rombo Togbahoun, fears there are more like him in the pipeline.
“Look at those kids out there with their hoodies,” he said. “We’re only seeing the start of the problem. That was just the first Amedy Coulibaly. There are lots of little Coulibalys.”
Has much changed in the Grande Borne and other rotting projects since the government launched action plans for them after the 2005 riots?
“Yes and no,” Rio, the mayor, replies.
The Grande Borne now has a new cultural centre and new gymnasium – which was quickly targeted in an arson attack last October – and is getting a tram link and other improvements. But 40 per cent of residents aged 16-25 have no work. After being robbed four times in one year, the pharmacy shut down. There is just one full-time doctor. Residents and the mayor complain that potential employers turn people away because they are from the Grande Borne.
“The republic must ask itself real questions,” Rio said. “For us to feel part of the republic, to love the republic, the republic has to love us back.”
Racial discrimination also is an obstacle for France’s minorities. The mayor, who is white, acknowledged that his skin colour might be part of the reason why his trajectory from the same estate has been so different from that of the black Coulibaly, born in France to parents from Mali.
Minorities have long complained that their names and colour can hold them back in work and careers and attract greater police scrutiny and checks. This in a political context where the anti-immigration, extreme-right National Front party has made electoral headway, making some minority French citizens feel even more unwelcome.
“I went through the same school (as Coulibaly), which means we had the same teachers at one time,” the mayor said. “That fills me, and many people here of my age, with questions.
“I’m not called Mohammed or Mamadou,” he said. “I know that really is an extra difficulty.”