Last week, I was talking to a friend who will be traveling to France for work later this month. This is his first time voyaging overseas and he has no knowledge of France, so he was unsure of what to expect. We were talking about his trip when he mentioned that he was particularly concerned about the “red zones” in France, areas where even the French police dare not enter. My immediate reaction was one of surprise. France’s crime rate is much lower than that of the United States. It was hard for me to imagine an area where French police dare not tread. But, he persisted, saying that these zones are sprinkled throughout the country. Certain that there was nothing to worry about, I told him I’d look into it and get back to him. I’ve since found numerous articles claiming that there are 751 no-go zones in France where you will be met with dangerous levels of hostility unless, that is, you are Muslim. One such zone is the Marais, in central Paris, an affluent and happening neighborhood that I have walked many times alone. I decided to track down the source of this far-reaching myth.
The No-go Zones Claim
Apparently, the term no-go zones first appeared shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January of 2015. For several days thereafter, Fox News aired reports, bringing forward a variety of “experts”, claiming that there are certain Muslim neighborhoods in Paris and throughout France that are no longer safe for non-Muslims. To be precise, Fox repeatedly stated that there are 751 of these zones, where the residents no longer abide by French law. Instead, they have instituted Sharia law and are educating their children in madrasas, rather than French public schools.
The No-go Zones Apology
Like all effective propaganda, the reports mix facts with fantasy. The number 751, for example, was pulled from a 1996 public study. At that time, the French government identified 751 urban areas that would benefit from state-supplied fiscal and social programs. These “zones sensibles“, or sensitive zones, are characterized by higher-than-average levels of unemployment and poverty. A majority of the residents in some of these zones are Muslim immigrants. But, there are no areas where French law is not enforced or where French police are afraid to enter. Such neighborhoods are similar to the poor areas of any big city in the world. They experience higher levels of crime and outsiders may indeed feel uncomfortable on the streets, but few French people would refuse to enter if they had a need to do so.
As news of these reports spread around the world, the reactions of French citizens ranged from outrage to bewilderment. The British also took offense, as the same claims were made about neighborhoods in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Social media outlets were flooded with criticism of the provocative news network and Fox issued a statement admitting that there are no areas in France that exclude non-Muslims or where police are afraid to enter. Fox avoided mentioning that French law is enforced uniformly throughout the country; that there are only 30 Muslim schools in France; that there are also 300 Jewish schools and 9,000 Catholic schools in France; and, that most Muslims in France immigrated from former colonies in Northern Africa and have multi-generational roots in the country.
The Damage is Done
More than two years later, it’s sad to see that this piece of misinformation is alive and well. In February of this year, Pamela Geller, an anti-Islamic blogger, tweeted out a link to one of her posts. Titled “PARIS RIOT: No-go zones expand as violence spreads ACROSS FRANCE”, the post briefly despairs over France’s inability to protect itself. Geller implies that the country is once again losing control to an outside force as it did to the Nazis during World War II. This time, she warns, America won’t be coming to their rescue. Her commentary ends there and the rest of the post is lifted from a right-wing British tabloid that refers to President Hollande as the Prime Minister. French twitter users fired back, from the very areas named in Geller’s post, with comments, photographs, and videos, testifying to the fact that all was well. Others took a sillier approach, comparing Paris to Bagdad and warning of zombies eating people in the streets.
Responding to heated criticism, Geller doubled down, claiming that she gathered her information from respected news sources. Again, there is an element of fact underlying the hype. After a video surfaced in February, showing French police beating and anally raping a black man (known as Théo), several demonstrations turned violent in poor neighborhoods. Armed officers did indeed take to the streets, employing tear gas and shooting into the air to quell the unrest.
Events like this are concerning but should be kept in perspective. After the Rodney King video surfaced in Los Angeles, there was widespread looting, assault, and arson, causing over $1 billion in property damage. Horrifyingly, 58 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured. Despite the extraordinary level of violence, reports did not spread across the globe, claiming that the U.S. government was losing control and that it was no longer safe to travel here. By comparison, during the February riots in France, vehicles were torched, rubbish containers were set aflame, windows were broken, and one person was accused of carrying a gun. Many in the U.S., however, who rely on right-wing news sites like Breitbart and Infowars, only saw Geller’s exaggerated and alarmist account of the story.
Another Twist on the No-go Zones Theme
Women’s rights in Muslim society have long been of concern to westerners. An area of growing contention pertains to Muslim-dominated neighborhoods in France, where Muslim women are rarely visible. In these strict, religious enclaves, women are not allowed to mix with men. Cafés and bars are frequented exclusively by male patrons. To avoid being hassled, French women, who also live in these neighborhoods, often feel compelled to wear baggy clothing, avoid using makeup, and keep a low profile. Human rights groups are actively denouncing such segregating practices, working to empower Muslim women, and organizing demonstrations in male-dominated streets.
Basing their reporting on this important issue, a handful of British and American news organizations have revived the no-go zone theme. This time the rhetoric is milder, describing areas where women (instead of police) are not safe to enter. Again, however, the reporting is exaggerated and ignores the fact that there are neighborhoods worldwide where women feel threatened. Muslim women live in these neighborhoods and, to the frustration of many westerners, many of them are outspoken advocates for the lifestyles they are leading there. French women live and work in these neighborhoods, as well. Female activists enter these neighborhoods, going from shop to shop, café to café, engaging Muslim men in dialogue to challenge their beliefs. To imply that travel to France is no longer safe, because of growing Muslim domination, is irresponsible at best.
For those that don’t read beyond the headlines, another article about Muslim no-go zones does damage. Over time, the implication becomes that France is no longer safe to travel to. When important issues are blown out of proportion, they become insurmountable rather than solvable. The idea that non-Muslims are no longer safe in France is alarmist, harmful, and flat-out wrong.
Putting Things into Perspective
Issues such as immigration, terrorism, unsafe neighborhoods, crime, poverty, and human rights are as important in France as they are in the United States. Like the U.S., France has its share of salacious headlines and fake news outlets. The idea, however, that Americans might not feel safe to travel in France is absurd, if not unimaginable, for most French people. The crime rate in the U.S. is many times that of France’s. Cities such as Indianapolis, IN and Kansas City, MO have violent crime rates well above those seen in France. Yet, few Americans with tickets to a Colts or Chiefs football game would heed warnings to stay away.
When Fox first broke the no-go zones story, the mayor of Paris, herself a Spanish immigrant, was incensed and threatened to sue the news organization. Most French people, however, dismiss the controversy with a wave of the hand. Some humorists have mocked the issue, such as Le Petit Journal–France’s version of the Daily Show. In general, la vie quotidienne (everyday life) carries on quite comfortably and the country remains one of the most desirable travel destinations in the world.