Gare du Nord railway station is what British historian Andrew Hussey calls "the frontier zone" between the world of affluent and well-heeled Paris and that of the banlieu, the suburbs north of the French capital that are home to largely poor, immigrant and minority communities. Philippe Lissac/DPA/Landov hide caption


itoggle caption Philippe Lissac/DPA/Landov

The French, with their national motto of "Liberty, equality, fraternity," are so against religious and ethnic divisions that the government doesn't even collect this kind of data.

But it's believed that nearly 40 percent of France's 7 million Muslims live in and around Paris, many in poor suburban communities known as banlieues.

Many in these communities feel increased scrutiny after three young Muslim men, each born and raised in France, killed 17 people in January's terror attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris.

The bustling Gare du Nord train station marks the frontier between central Paris and the banlieues, says Andrew Hussey, a British historian who has written about the tensions between France and its black and Arab minorities.

But it's believed that nearly 40 percent of France's 7 million Muslims live in and around Paris, many in poor suburban communities known as banlieues.

And this community has been at the center of public debate after the January terror attacks


Ismael Medjdoub grew up in one of Paris' banlieus. He spends up to two hours a day commuting from his home in Tremblay en France to work and to school at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris. Bilal Qureshi/NPR hide caption


itoggle caption Bilal Qureshi/NPR

The bustling Gare du Nord train station marks the frontier between central Paris and the banlieues, says Andrew Hussey, a British historian who has written about the tensions between France and its black and Arab minorities.

It's the place where the suburbs of northern Paris which consist of mainly immigrant, minority populations, who are often very poor come into contact with the relative affluence and comfort of the city center.

"The Gare du Nord is where the kids from the banlieue feel excluded because they come here and it's a frontier zone between Paris over there, which is very well-heeled and very rich and very beautiful, and over there [the suburbs], where they are cast out into this world that's not quite connected to the center of France," he says.

Ismael Medjdoub is one of these "kids from the banlieue" who straddles these two worlds. Medjdoub, 21, a third generation Frenchman of Algerian descent, spends a lot of time on the subway getting to and from work and school up to two hours every day, including Sunday.

We hop the B train from Gare du Nord that takes him home.


Ismael Medjdoub's mother, Fatihah, was born in France in 1963. Her family had emigrated from Algeria earlier. She says young Muslims of her generation practiced their religion privately unlike the current generation's very public assertion of its Muslim identity. Bilal Qureshi/NPR hide caption


itoggle caption Bilal Qureshi/NPR

Medjdoub is a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, and would like to get an apartment in the city. But he says his district number it's like an American zip code is hurting his chances.

Make no mistake: Medjdoub says he's proud to be from a banlieue, a town called Tremblay en France. But he knows people look down on those communities.

"Every time that I say to someone that I am coming from the suburbs they have some pity for me that I cannot understand," he says.


He recalls an incident during his first year studying history at the Sorbonne. He had gone to see his professor, to apologize for a delay in turning in his schoolwork.

"He answered to me: 'Don't worry, you are coming from suburbs so I know what you are feeling,'" Medjdoub says. "I was, What? I mean, come on guy, I am living in a big house with two cats! So it's not the image that you are making of suburbs."

We arrive at the small quiet station in Tremblay en France, a world apart from Paris. We meet Ismael's mother, Fatihah Medjdoub, at a nearby cafe.

As she adjusts the soft, blue-green jersey of her headscarf at the edges of her ears, Fatihah tells me her family emigrated from Algeria, and that she was born in France in 1963. But she says times are different for her son's generation.

"Young people today claim to be more Muslim than they did during my time. ... [W]e practiced Islam privately at home," she says. "Today's generation practices an Islam that they seek to understand. And that lead to prejudices against them."

Ismael agrees with his mother, and takes it one step further.

"Especially with the young generation we are telling them that you are not able to wear the veil and because they are denied in their identity, the only way they have to answer the situation is not simply wearing a hijab (headscarf) but a niqab," he says, referring to an even more obscuring head covering that leaves only the eyes visible.

Despite these challenges, Ismael is adamant: "The fact is, I'm French. ... I will never deny my nationality, and I am very proud of it."

He knows that life would be very different if his family had stayed in Algeria.

"So I'm grateful to my country," he says, "and I want to contribute to make it better."