From the Banlieues to the Bataclan A Trip on Samy Amimour's Bus Route

Day after day, Paris attacker Samy Amimour drove a bus through the city's notorious banlieues before murdering scores of people at the Bataclan concert venue. A journey through the area offers a full view of the stark contrasts and uncertainty that ail France today.
Von Alexander Smoltczyk und Maurice Weiss

The 148 bus line in Paris, usually on time and almost always overflowing with passengers, winds its way through the suburbs of Bobigny, Drancy and Le Blanc-Mesnil. It travels close to eight kilometers (five miles) through the banlieues, the suburban outskirts that have become a place of refuge for people of every ethnic, linguistic and socioeconomic background who can no longer afford life in the French capital. This is where Samy Amimour came from, one of the men who helped kill 89 people at a rock concert on Nov. 13, shooting people at close range who were just as young as he. Before that, in another life, Amimour drove this bus, the 148, as an employee of RATP, the French capital's public transport authority.

His tenure as a bus driver lasted 14 months, during which he drove the 148 bus far more than 1,000 times through Tariff Zone 3, from the Bobigny-Pablo Picasso stop to the Le Blanc-Mesnil Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace stop. He must have known all the stops by heart: "Danton," "Libération," "Division Leclerc." They are the names of heroes, their repetition like a mantra of the French Republic, as if one were calling out to the gods. But Amimour, the bus driver turned mass murderer, was on a different route -- and the Bataclan Theater was his final destination .

A ride on the 148 line offers no explanation as to why such inexplicable violence had to occur. It does, however, provide the opportunity to come into contact with the lost and aggrieved, those who have been left behind by society -- and with those who remain steadfast and defiant. Whether they want to be or not, everyone here is a citoyen, a proud citizen of a république whose own gods have become foreign to it -- a body politic filled with the fear of not knowing where the journey will end.

Before the beginning of their shift, the drivers stand outside the Café des Bus, where the coffee is better than in the break room. A formation of soldiers emerges from an underground parking lot beneath the shopping center at the Bobigny-Pablo Picasso bus terminal, a sinister-looking, blackened pile of concrete. They carry submachine guns at the ready and are on high alert, as if engaged in a street battle. But no one appears to pay them any mind. Nearby, parents take their children to daycare.

Ghislaine Dumesnil was a bus driver in the banlieue for 16 years. "RATP was my dream," she says. "I paid for my driver's license myself. I wanted to prove that women could drive a bus just as well as men." For Dumesnil, RATP was like a community. "People would greet each other with a kiss," Dumesnil recalls. "But one morning, a colleague refused to shake my hand. And then another, because it was against their beliefs. And then you go into the break room and no one says hello to you, as if you're not even there."

After the banlieue riots 10 years ago, the public transport authority began hiring more applicants from the area. At the time, the banlieues were burning and CNN was dispatching reporters to the Parisian suburbs as though it were a war zone. For the first time since the Algerian War, France declared a national state of emergency.

Like her parents, Ghislaine was a member of the communist labor union CGT. Even as a child, she began distributing flyers for the group. "If a person is no longer willing to shake hands with a woman because she's impure or something lesser, then gays or blacks could be next," she says. "We fought to be able to drive buses and now they're coming here from far away with their ideology and want to ban me from doing so?"

There's pushing and shoving in the bus. Baby carriages are shifted around. "The door, s'il vous plaît! The door!" From its first stop at Maurice Thorez, the 148 bus mirrors the world in its true dimensions -- there are lots of Asians and many North and sub-Saharan Africans, but not that many "Gauls." Here in the banlieues, they refer to people with names like Dupont and Ledoux as "Gaulois," a group that includes many who have never set foot in places like Bobigny or Drancy.

Paris and the banlieues

Paris and the banlieues


With the exception of the war years, the Communists have been in control in the Bobigny city hall since 1919. In this part of France, a part of Paris' suburban periphery known as the "red belt," communism has deep roots -- and they persisted even long after the end of the Soviet empire. Maurice Thorez, the leader of the French Communist Party until well into the 1960s, was Stalin's man in France. There's even a city in Ukraine's separatist area named after him. For the most part, though, Thorez has been forgotten outside of Paris' banlieues. There's just one quote from him, from the 1930s, that is still splashed across placards or city walls: "France for the French."

The abbreviation MIRE, a fixture in the Rue du Lieutenant Lebrun, stands for the attempt to put young people to work, a chronic problem in France. "They come to us," says social worker Carole Soucaille, "and some haven't had breakfast or lunch. They have problems with unpaid rent, they don't have driver's licenses and they have last names that sound like they come from the ghetto."

Flyers offering prospects of a better life are posted in the hallway, with headings like, "cashier," "shelf-filler," training to become a security agent, "literacy required." It was through MIRE that Amimour landed his job as a bus driver.

Soucaille silently draws a rectangle in front of her. Leading up to it is an arrow that is supposed to represent Amimour's life. "We did a good job with Samy. Apartment, driver's license, the family is fantastic, his mother a leading feminist in Algeria, his sister an educator in a youth center. And then ..." The arrow stops at the rectangle. "What happened here?"

Soucaille says that even in the banlieues, most people just want to live relatively comfortable lives, just like everyone else. "Disruptions always come from the outside. Someone addresses them in a mosque, in jail or over the Internet. These young men are so fragile."

"Sometimes," says Soucaille, who wears jeans and keeps her hair tied back, "a person comes in with no English, no driver's license, no certificate of conduct. But he will insist on a job as baggage handler at the airport." She pauses for a second. "As though someone put him up to it."

It's not good, she says, to be afraid of a generation in which one should really be placing one's hopes. "The parents know why they left the Maghreb region, but their children don't." Ultimately, she says, all these problems can be traced back to France's relationship with its former colonies. "Algeria. The answer is always Algeria, when people in France are being cagey about something," she says, referring to the bloody war that led to the former French colony's independence and left at least 300,000 people dead.

Escadrille Normandie-Niéman is the stop for the Franco-Muslim Avicenna hospital. It was built during the 1930s for the "Harki," former residents of the colonies who were loyal to France -- and not just from Algeria. Tunisians and Moroccans also fought in the trenches of Verdun for France during World War I.

The third floor of a social housing flat near Rue Rameau is the site that produced one of France's most famous myths. The story of a small, quarrelsome, but ultimately undefeatable folk hero: Asterix. It was here, with a view out over the Muslim cemetery, that Alberto Uderzo drew the heroic, Gallic comic figure for the first time.

"For a long time, I had no idea who this Uderzo was," says Marilyn Sargin, who lives here today. "My husband took the apartment from his parents," she explains. Sargin's parents are Christians who fled from Iraq. Her best friend Nyouma only barely survived the Nov. 13 terror attacks. She was dining with a friend at the restaurant Le Petit Cambodge, where 15 people were killed.

Several years ago, a Gaul burial site was discovered directly next to the Muslim cemetery at Avicenna hospital, with Gauls buried next to Muslims buried next to Gauls.

The 148 bus makes its way through an urban landscape that has a little bit of everything. There are social housing towers next to retirement homes, warehouses, motorways and a Nelson Mandela School, all squeezed together. It is a place without an identity -- just as the town limits signs no longer delineate borders between municipalities. Rather, they feel more like commemorative plaques: Here stood Drancy, Bobigny, Blanc-Mesnil.

Some of the street names that pop up in these neighborhoods are both pathetic and touching at the same time. There's Lenin and Saint Just, streets honoring justice and industry. There are streets named after resistance fighters, labor leaders, liberators, party secretaries, heroic railway workers, victims of justice, deportees and revolutionary martyrs. They are memorials to a time when history, despite all the setbacks, still made sense. A time when terrorists still sought to explain their actions, when violence was directed at governments and not at random passersby from any old place on any old evening in front of any old bar. A time when there was still a continuum, from Robespierre to Lenin, from Asterix to Charles de Gaulle. It is a history that Samy Amimour no longer wanted anything to do with.

Next comes the Danton stop. The Front National may not have any offices here, but during the first round of the most recent regional elections, Marine Le Pen's right-wing populists got twice as many votes in the banlieue as the Left Party. The far right base in France keeps a low profile, usually only showing its face on election days. In France, the far right has always been an enemy of the republic, but today, it presents itself as the country's defender, campaigning under the slogan "Patriotic Banlieues," complete with campaign posters depicting a choice between burqas and the bonnet rouge of the French Revolution.

The name Amimour is still affixed to the mailbox at the apartment, which is located right behind town hall, the Mairie de Drancy. This was his stop. In his room, he kept sports newspapers like L'Equipe and France Football, the police say. His mother was once part of the mayor's party ticket in the local election. His father even followed his son to Syria in an effort to stop him and try to bring him back. He didn't want to give up on his son. When he finally caught up with Samy, the future terrorist allegedly told his father he now had a new family.

At home in the Parisian banlieue, Amimour had a view from his apartment of a copy of Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" painted in the trompe-l'oeil technique along the entire rear side of the social welfare office. It shows bodies stacked on top of each other, clouds of gun powder and rifles held up high. Immediately beneath it is Article III of France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen: "The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation." And not from God or Allah.

The next stop is Cimetière de Drancy. "We lost Samy," says Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy. "His mother came to me in 2012 and asked for advice," he explains. "I said she should inform the intelligence services. Samy was also interrogated and stripped of his passport. He then traveled to Syria without a passport. We lost so many of them."

Chalghoumi preaches an Islam in the colors of France and its virtues. He meets with rabbis and priests. He considers the country and its values to be an opportunity. But there's a high price to pay for this tolerance: When he preaches, he has to wear a bullet-proof vest.

Chalghoumi was born in Tunis. He's a tall man, with a quiet voice, but he's still a talker. He's clean shaven, save for a few whiskers on his chin. Many leading Muslim voices in France are dismissive of Chalghoumi, calling him everything from a "collaborator" to "the Zionists' darling." His enemies chanted such slogans for days and weeks in front of his mosque in Drancy in 2011 after Chalghoumi spoke out in favor of the burqa ban. "It was terrible, especially for my family," he says. "The Islamists distributed their brochures and videos all around the area. That's how Samy Amimour came into contact with them."

He says he hasn't slept a single night in his home since Nov. 13. "I change apartments. Our neighbors moved out. Recently, I was refused service in a restaurant. The owner said it was because of the other guests." When Chalghoumi goes out on the street, which he generally avoids, he's accompanied by five elite police officers, all of them nervous with their semiautomatic weapons at the ready. It looks like a scene in Baghdad, outside the Green Zone, but in fact it is part of the City of Paris. This is what everyday life is like for a reformist Muslim in 2016 in the very city that is the historical home of human rights.

"The state is afraid," the imam says. "Everyone knows that there are weapons depots in the banlieues. But the country's bad conscience, this talk of the victims of colonialism -- misplaced tolerance leads the state to do nothing. The broader population doesn't do anything either. Everyone is afraid."

The imam's path often crossed with that of bus driver Amimour. It was on the 148 bus that Chalghoumi started the Grand Frères, or big brothers, citizen's initiative. "We gathered up the older men and told the young men they should take their feet off the seats and start worrying about getting some job training," he explains. "That all happened on the 148 bus."

Inside the Collège Anatole France school on Rue Henri Rouanet, there's a sign posted with the "Secularism Charter," introduced in schools by the French government in 2013. In its 15 articles, every form of national religion and missionary work is condemned. Students are ordered to be respectful in their faith and, without exception, to fully participate in their classes. "Obvious" religious symbols or pieces of clothing are forbidden. The Islamic State has described the charter as an expression of "fanaticism." Everyone seems to be confused in this country.

"One student asked me if she could use the word 'church' in an essay. All she had wanted to do, though, was to describe a village," says Christiane, a Baden-Württemberg native who teaches German and English in the banlieue and asks that her last name not be included in this story. The idea of secularism is to keep the church out of public schools. These days, however, it feels like this neutrality towards religion has instead resulted in making any expression of faith a taboo. But now, the Islamist has replaced the priest as the bogeyman.

"I have had classes in which no one wanted to describe themselves as being French," teacher Christiane says. "Some only know this species from television. Even if they were born here, they all identify as being Algerians, Romanians, Kurds or Malians." Is that bad? Is it good?

Statistics show that no other country in the European Union is as diverse as France. Within the second generation, 44 percent of North Africans have married non-immigrant French nationals. And yet this still hasn't prevented the growth of irreconcilable enemies. And it didn't stop Samy Amimour.

On the other side of the seemingly endless tracks of the Parisian freight rail depot lies Place Roger Salomon, where Café Le Moderne is located. A photo of Ché Guevara is mounted on the wall and two employees of the Paris city parks department are perched at the bar, leafing through Paris Turf, a sports betting magazine.

A former government minister can be seen on television in the background saying that Islamism represents a "direct threat to two-thirds of the population." "Another small one, Azad," one of the city employees says, waving an espresso cup. Azad is the 25-year-old son of the owner, a Kurd. He's fond of talking politics, and when the subject of Kurdistan comes up, he switches to the first person. "If we hadn't had the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party)," he says, "We also would have become Islamists."

"France never apologized for the war in Algeria," Azad says through the steam of the espresso machine. That's why some of his customers would never fly the French flag, he adds, no matter how horrible an attack might have been.

"There's no longer any labor movement. The conservative bourgeoisie has conquered the banlieues. Because there are no longer any workers. Because everything is a mess. I even saw for myself, how men wearing beards posted signs for the conservative candidate Thierry Meignen (of the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, party) because he had promised them a mosque." That, it turns out, is how the bourgeoisie managed to capture Blanc-Mesnil city hall for the first time in 80 years. "Let me tell you something," Azad says, "the mosques have destroyed our Département. They stole the (French) Revolution away from us."

The banlieue isn't the Bronx of the 1970s or 1980s. The street lamps mostly work, and little old ladies post notices on them, with messages like: "Lost small cat with gray ears last night." The bus passes small, ornate houses, perfect for life's twilight years, edged by carefully manicured shrubs. Renault workers once lived here by the thousands. After them came Pakistanis, Bulgarians and Chinese. Many migrants vote for the Front National, which has its own aspirations to one day take over City Hall here too, the Hôtel de Ville du Blanc-Mesnil, another stop along the 148 line.

Thierry Meignen can fill any room with his presence; he is high-energy and fast-paced. The city hall was erected in the 1960s by the communists as an eternal fortress. When Meignen moved in, many people thought it was a gag. Here he was, a man who had made a name for himself as "the rightist candidate," moving into a historically leftist stronghold.

"City Hall was the money spigot of the Communist Party. It was a system of mutual favors, threats, opaque alliances and bad habits," Meignen says. He's a member of Nicolas Sarkozy's party, the Republicans, as UMP recently started calling themselves. He drives a Benz coupé and used to work for the French intelligence agency. "Some people might catch a whiff of sulphur," he says, "but most know me from before. They know I'm not the devil. They wanted a change. The communists thought they had a historical claim to City Hall because of their role in the resistance."

The new mayor has cut the price of water in half. He sent local police officers out on bicycles and had security cameras installed. A picture of France's leftist president hangs in his office, but he shoved a plant in front of it to obstruct the view. He has also kept his promise to build a mosque.

"Another reason the left lost the Banlieue was because they underestimated the importance of religion," Meignen says. "They campaigned on strict secularity and gender issues, as if to say: 'Even Ahmed likes to wear lipstick sometimes.' But when it comes to issues like these, many Muslims think the same way as our good ol' Catholics."

Two residents of Le Blanc-Mesnil, north of Paris, died in the Bataclan. A third is still in the hospital. He's a fashion designer -- one of the few people to escape life on the urban fringe and make it to Paris.

Shortly before the Libération stop, the 148 bus passes a house at No. 133. It recently got new owners, a family from Bulgaria. Sammy Ghozlan, a man known as the "kosher bull" who originally built the house for himself, has since moved on -- to Israel. As a police commissioner, he annoyed plenty of people with his warnings. The last time was only days before a gunman stormed a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes in eastern Paris.

With that, Ghozlan packed his bags. "Better to leave of my own free will than be forced out," the émigré says on the phone from Netanya. People used to respect each other, he says. "On July 14, our national holiday, the rabbi would read the imam's speech as well, because he didn't speak any French." Everyone in the neighborhood was from Algeria, Jews, Gauls and Muslims alike.

But people have changed, says Ghozlan. "My car was set on fire in my driveway. The state is afraid. More and more schools, commissioner's offices and supermarkets have to be kept under surveillance. There's less protection for us Jews. I'm very depressed. I doubt that Jews have a future in France."

Last year, nearly 8,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel, making them the largest group of immigrants to the country in 2015.

As a young police officer, Ghozlan worked with colleagues who once took part in France's anti-Jewish raids. "I didn't find out until later. It's not something people like to talk about."

From one bus stop to the next, the route increasingly becomes a gallery of war heroes and national martyrs. Tribute is paid to Division Leclerc, for instance, named after the commander of the 2nd Armored Division that liberated Paris in 1944. The 148 bus traces the myth of the Republic, and cuts right through it. Including that of General Charles de Gaulle and of a unified France that resisted its German occupiers.

Social housing here is known as HLM, as in Habitation à Loyer Modéré, or apartments with affordable rent. Found in every town in France, they were meant to be a staple of social progress: healthy, cheap apartments for the working class. The pinnacle of HLM is located just a few hundred meters away from the 148 bus line. It is the Cité de la Muette, and it was built in the 1930s for Parisian bus drivers and their families.

But the bus drivers preferred to live in small houses, so the Cité stood empty until 1939, when it became a prison camp. All it took to seal off the U-shaped building from the outside was the erection of a barbed wire fence. In June 1940, the Germans requisitioned the Cité, first using it as a prisoner of war camp before turning it into a concentration camp. Eventually, some 63,000 Jews would be interned on this property in the suburbs.

The Le Bourget station was a point of departure for trains heading to Auschwitz, Sobibor and Majdanek. It's entirely possible that the workers who were packing Jews into railcars at the time were also enjoying their café and calvados at Le Moderne. It's all still there: the train tracks, the station building, the Cité de la Muette. The only thing that's missing are the Parisian Jews.

What was once a concentration camp has again become social housing. It was an easy fix -- only the barbed wire had to be removed. French Algerians began moving into the Cité de la Muette, followed by repatriated French, and eventually immigrants from former colonies -- first the North Africans, then the Malians, then the Senegalese, then the Ivorians. It's a trend that continues to this day.

Along the Avenue des Cosmonautes, young men with beards stand around, pants tucked into their socks and robes hanging down to their ankles. At prayer time, the mosques are well attended.

Bashir Hacheh despises the imam from Drancy. "He's too humble. He justifies himself too much. I don't have to justify myself. I'm proud of my faith. I pray five times a day. Why? For fear of Allah."

His speech is choppy and a little hoarse. He keeps his intonation gutteral, the kind heard in the Cité or the Maghreb. It's what home sounds like. "The values of the Republic. What does that mean?" he asks. The liberties of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo? The equality of presidential candidates who are practically interchangeable? And fraternity that boils down to little more than social welfare?

But Hacheh gets even more upset about the fact that everything is getting so mixed up. He feels like every Muslim is under general suspicion. The mayor gave him a job as an athletic supervisor, a position that sees him oversee a youth group. He would like to have a bigger car and pay TV. Bashir may indeed believe in a paradise, but for now, a Saturday night on the couch watching football on Sky TV will do.

Next stop: Avenue V. I. Lénine, or "six Lenin" as it is called in the local parlance, which reads the initials as Roman numerals.

Yvette Sauvage, a retired elementary school teacher, doesn't believe in God or the devil. That's why she doesn't care if her high-rise building, located directly behind the bus stop, is known as "la tour infernale," or the hell tower.

Garbage piles up at the entrance and drug dealers watch people as they come and go. "Yes, the small groups of youths, waiting for their customers. To old ladies like me, they are extremely courteous," Sauvage says. She just turned 85.

Sauvage can remember a time when the area around her was just a field, before they started building housing in the mid-60s to accommodate all the French Algerians. She spent her entire life in this Cité. Now she's one of the last remaining "Gauls" in the tower. "I like being here," she says. A life in the countryside or one around other elderly people wouldn't be for her. Sometimes when she speaks, a subtle laugh is just barely audible.

She represented the Communist Party on the city council for some 30 years. Sauvage tells how she and the other members of her collective built a park on the Avenue des Cosmonautes with their own bare hands. They leveled everything, drew lines and dug holes for plants. They named it after Jacques Duclos, the great Communist. "Then the Africans came and ..." She holds her breath. "They were ... they didn't know ..." Another pause. People must choose their words carefully in these trying times, she says.

Sauvage spent her life teaching things to people. It was like a religion to her. She still teaches French classes in her tower. Sometimes she also distributes leaflets. When she does, she is struck by the incredulity of the men she encounters. "They doubt our proposals. They don't believe in anything anymore, not even themselves," she says.

During the 2005 riots, Sauvage stood at her window and watched as teenagers and young adults tore apart the local community center. "They burned the very things that were meant for them," she says. Unemployment is indeed a problem, she adds. "Nobody remembers what it used to look like here. They don't appreciate the work we leftists did. Well, that's just the way things are." Her laughter returns.

It takes a lot to perturb Sauvage, but it happened once when a woman approached her. "She said our Duclos Park wasn't the work of the city council, but the work of God."

The last stop on the 148 line is in the Rue des Martyrs de la Déportation, named in honor of the victims of the Nazi deportations. Behind manicured trees, an old fighter jet rests beside the phallic shape of an Ariane rocket from the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace, literally: The Air and Space Museum. The 148 bus stops for a moment and waits.

Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam, sought out this location for his portrait. Any other stop along the line would have been too dangerous. After the three cars in his motorcade come to a stop, bodyguards clutching submachine guns secure the area. "C'est pas bon ici," says the one in charge: "Not a good place." He looks up to the windows of the housing projects around him. There's no one to be seen.

The guards give a signal and Chalghoumi gets out of his vehicle and stands next to the bus stop. After a quick photo, the motorcade is off again. Chalghoumi is a man of faith, one who preaches tolerance on the outskirts of Paris. To do this, he needs protection as if he were an anti-mafia judge. With a final handshake, he is gone.

The 148 bus turns around and heads back. It's about eight kilometers from the Bobigny-Pablo Picasso stop to the Air and Space Museum. The route cuts through the city like a knife, slicing through this urban fringe, this banlieue, where one stop after another bears the names of the dead. "Danton," "Thorez" and "Lenin." The 148 bus keeps driving, back and forth, back and forth, but Samy Amimour is no longer at the wheel.

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