When he thinks of Mohamed Merah, the Islamist attacker who shot Jewish schoolchildren to death in Toulouse before dying in a gunfight with the police in March, Omar Djellil sees himself.
"I was once a bit like him," he says. "There's a Merah in all of us."
Djellil can remember well his years as a teenaged ruffian in one of the roughest neighborhoods of the northeastern French city of Reims as well as his years at a mosque in Bordeaux. It was a time when he also believed that his Muslim faith required him to join the armed struggle to re-establish a caliphate.
"I narrowly avoided a similar fate," says Djellil, a 41-year-old man with a neat circle beard on his youthful face. He's sitting behind the register at a telephone shop in Marseille primarily frequented by Moroccans and Algerians.
The difference between the two men, though, is that while Merah went to meet his death as an extremist, Djellil went into politics. What's more, while Merah has come to represent the face of the enemy for French right-wing populist politician Marine Le Pen, Djellil claims Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as a friend.
The two men -- one a Muslim from Marseille and the other the honorary chair of the right-wing Front National (FN) -- have met for lunch three times, Djellil says, and they have plans to meet again in October.
He says they talked about the Koran, Algeria and criminality -- and found that they shared the same opinions on a surprisingly large number of issues. Le Pen ended up calling Djellil a Muslim patriot. Djellil returned the compliment by declaring Le Pen one of the great figures in French politics and saying that he would vote for Le Pen if he were ever to run for president again.
A Political Conversion
This story of a Muslim and a right-wing populist coming together is an unusual one. It's the story of a man who has often lost his way, and perhaps it also reflects the difficulties faced by some French Muslims searching for an identity.
It's also a story that says something about the appeal of these right-wing populists, who capitalize on fears of France's decline. The FN's disdain for the political system makes it attractive even to those that party leader Marine Le Pen has made into scapegoats.
Traditionally, the vast majority of France's Muslims vote on the left end of the political spectrum, and polls indicate that less than 5 percent supported the younger Le Pen in the French presidential election's first round of balloting earlier this year. Yet there have always been a small number of right-wing Muslims around the Le Pens. During the presidential campaign, the former mufti of Marseille called on Muslims to vote for Le Pen rather than Sarkozy, the then-president with the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.
Djellil is a religious man, one of the volunteer administrators of al-Takwa Mosque, which is located less than 100 meters (330 feet) from the telephone shop, by the Porte d'Aix in downtown Marseille. It's the city's largest mosque, with space for 800 worshipers, situated in an area inhabited mainly by Algerian, Moroccan and Comorian immigrants. It's a multicultural neighborhood, but one wracked by poverty and crime. The port city of Marseille has always been a rough place. This, Djellil says, is where he lost his "naïve leftist view of the world."
About a year ago, young gangsters took over a nearby parking lot, forcing out the employees and taking over the business themselves. For a 5 ($6.15) fee in cash, they guaranteed not only parking but also "security."
Together with local residents and business owners, Djellil founded a civic association that took to the streets to protest the police's inaction. The matter attracted media attention and launched Djellil's brief career as a politician. When reporters in Marseille go looking for a critical Muslim voice, they often call Djellil, who provides them with simple, snappy quotes.
Djellil says he's had enough of illegal immigrants "who engage in criminal activities right here on our doorstep, rob passersby of their jewelry and threaten store owners." He doesn't want to be lumped together any longer with hoodlums who set cars on fire or, as has been happening lately in Marseille, exchange AK-47 fire as they wrangle over control of drug territory.
Djellil was once a Socialist, he says. But, in Marseille, he realized that his views were more aligned with those of the FN. He says he's a devout Muslim, very conservative, opposed to elites, opposed to globalization -- and especially opposed to new immigrants.
An Unlikely Friendship Is Born
One might ask how the son of immigrants can be opposed to them.
"My father worked for the French railway his entire life and, for that, he receives a pension of 800 a month," Djellil says. "These illegals today, though, they sully our reputation while getting all the public-assistance benefits. That's unfair. Those who were here first have a right to more!"
Djellil's relationship with the right-wing populists began last year when he shot a video that advocated voting for the FN "to fuck the system." It's a basic principle he shares with many of the party's voters.
Not long thereafter, Djellil and other members of his mosque met with one of the FN's regional council representatives, Stéphane Durbec, whose father came to mainland France from the Antilles islands. A video of this meeting is available online, and Djellil plays it on his computer. In it, they give Durbec a tour of the mosque, show him how to pray and take him to the bazaar around the corner, where Arab merchants offer the black FN politician tea.
"It was incredible," Djellil says. "He was overwhelmed by the friendliness of these bearded Muslims in their traditional robes. That encounter got him to start rethinking things." As a result, Durbec introduced his new friend Djellil to his political mentor, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
For Djellil, it was a feeling of immediate rapport. "I'm everything he normally wouldn't like," he explains. "But, for him, it was enough that I said I love France." Djellil explained his view of Islam to Le Pen, who subsequently told the press that the FN could end its years of opposing the construction of a large mosque in Marseille, as long as the mosque were run according to the terms that Djellil had outlined.
There were plenty of people in the FN who didn't like that, Djellil says. Party leader Marine Le Pen certainly didn't. But the elder Le Pen has stuck by Djellil, even inviting him and his family to his home, to the Villa Montretout in Saint-Cloud, an upscale suburb of Paris. Djellil claims that when he pointed out that his wife wears a veil, Le Pen simply said: "So what?"
Radicalization and Escape
Djellil has Le Pen's cell-phone number and says he occasionally calls him. But what is it exactly that he hopes to get from his strange friend? Is he looking for absolution?
"Perhaps, yes. Why not?" Djellil answers. It seems as if he sees his background as a defect, but one he can erase if Le Pen, France's xenophobe-in-chief, really is his friend.
Djellil says he told Le Pen his life story. His grandfather fought in the French army when Algeria was still part of France, as did many of his relatives. After Algeria gained its independence, the family relocated to France. Djellil grew up in the Orgeval projects in Reims, in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the entire country. "I was a criminal for 10 years," he says. "Theft. Burglary. Drugs. I left school when I was 17. All I had was my friends and the things we did."
He experienced firsthand the hopelessness of the cités -- poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of French cities roughly equivalent to US projects -- where there are no jobs to be had. He felt oppressed and identified with the American civil rights movement. People in the neighborhood called him "Malcolm X."
Then Djellil was conscripted into the army, which he enjoyed so much that he asked to sign on for a longer term of service -- but was rejected because of his past. "And now look at Mohamed Merah," he says. "He applied to the army three times. I know what was going on in his head."
Djellil had to go back home to his old neighborhood, where he soon ended up involved in a gunfight. People were injured, and Djellil fled to Bordeaux. There, he says, he simply walked into the nearest mosque one day to make a break with his past, and he hasn't committed a legal offense since. But he fell in with the wrong crowd there and radicalized, following the path of jihad for seven years. "I was a different person," he says now. "It was impossible to talk to me."
He married a cousin from Algeria and got a job with the city government inspecting market stalls. But within a few months, he says, his colleagues bullied him out of the job. They refused to shake his hand. One time, he arrived at work to find pork lying on his desk. Another time, it was a photomontage of veiled figures engaged in group sex. Anti-Muslim threats arrived in his mailbox at home.
That hate radicalized him even further. He quit his job and moved his family to Marseille. Not until he joined his new mosque, he says, did he meet fellow Muslims who showed him the error of his ways.
Searching for Acceptance
Omar Djellil's life is the story of the search for a place in society and acceptance. The fact that he's looking for acceptance from Jean-Marie Le Pen, of all people, perhaps shows how great his desperation is.
"It's hard to be a Muslim in France," Djellil says. He wishes he lived in the United States, where he says Muslims are freer to practice their religion, unlike in France, where the government tries to restrict them.
More Muslims live in France than in any other country in Europe. In Marseille, for example, they make up an estimated one-third of the population. But the country doesn't seem to know how to treat them. Many French citizens are afraid of the young Muslims in the cités, but politicians only step in when another catastrophe occurs, as in the case of Mohamed Merah.
Secularism, with its strict separation of church and state, is one of the basic principles of the French Republic. In France, as in other European countries, Muslims have come under suspicion in recent years of being disloyal to the country that has taken them in. France introduced laws against wearing a burqa and forbid headscarves at state-run schools. The recent presidential election saw debates over the slaughtering of animals according to Islamic religious law.
The most avid participant in this battle against the supposed dangers of Islam is Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National since early 2011. She has taken her father's party, long a home for anti-Semites, and transformed it into a modern, right-wing populist movement, with Islam as the new enemy.
This is the question Djellil can't seem to answer: Why in the world would a devout Muslim align himself with precisely the political movement that warns against Islam? "If you take away the racism and identity politics, this is exactly the right place for me," he says. He isn't interested in hearing that, without those things, the FN would no longer be the FN.
"There are very nice people in the Front National," he says, "and they're at odds with the racists." Djellil considered working in politics together with Stéphane Durbec, the FN delegate who once visited his mosque, but Durbec has been attacked within the party for getting too close to the Muslim community and is now looking to associate himself with the conservative UMP party.
A Failed Foray into Politics
Ultimately, Omar Djellil wants something quite simple: He wants to prove that he's an upstanding citizen, and he wants to show that to a system he feels disregarded by. In France's parliamentary elections this June, he ran as an independent candidate and plastered the neighborhood with posters, many of which are still hanging. Indeed, Djellil looks very respectable in the pictures, a smiling, good-looking man in a black tie and blue striped shirt.
His slogan -- "Want change?" -- could very nearly have been mistaken for "Change is now," the slogan that François Hollande used in the presidential election campaign he would ultimately win.
Djellil received 198 votes in his electoral district, or 0.65 percent of the vote. Now he's not sure quite what should become of his political career, and his job at the telephone shop is only temporary. The store belongs to a cousin who asked Djellil to look after things while he was away in Algeria.
The reality is that Djellil is unemployed and has been for six months already. His political involvement is to blame, he says. His most recent job was a three-month contract at an information stand run by Marseille's transportation services. But when his bosses kept seeing him in the media, they opted not to renew his contract. "My wife is asking me to give up politics," he says.
A man comes into the telephone shop, a distant relative from the same village in Algeria as Djellil's family. He laughs when asked about Djellil's political work.
"Well, I don't exactly share Omar's opinions there," he says.
"No wonder," Djellil responds with a laugh. "You're an immigrant. You were here illegally for a long time."
Djellil's relative explains that he obtained a high school equivalency diploma and is now pursuing a master's degree at a university.
"This one here is a good immigrant," Djellil says, slapping him on the shoulder. "I'll keep this one."