Small town Lunel's oversized extremist numbers show why France is getting more worried

People standing outside the police station in the centre of Lunel, southern France, on Jan 27, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
People standing outside the police station in the centre of Lunel, southern France, on Jan 27, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

LUNEL (AFP) - For insight into why France is increasingly worried about large sections of its society becoming fertile turf for extremist recruiters, the southern town of Lunel offers a singular example.

On Tuesday, five people were arrested around Lunel by authorities investigating the departure of about 20 residents from the suburban Montpellier town to join Islamist fighters in Syria.

Since October, six have been killed in Syria or neighbouring Iraq, French authorities said.

The relatively large number of extremist recruits from the small southern town of just 26,000 people has made Lunel an outsized example of the security threat that the entire nation faces - one France became acutely aware of following the Jan 7-9 attacks in Paris that left 17 people dead.

"When you have 20 young people who leave, six of whom who have been killed and young women (among them) we will never see again, there's a problem," warns Lunel municipal councillor Philippe Moissonnier, who speaks of a local "generation that has become radicalised because it's (full of) bitterness."

Others note the profiles of Lunel extremists fit those of most other young people who left France to wage jihad.

"These youths are completely adrift," says Mr Pascal Gomez, head of a local cultural and social association working with Lunel's youth. "They are born in France with North African roots. We never managed to tell them, 'This blue, white and red flag is yours,' (so) they leave to find a fatherland that will accept them."

Founded by Jews from Jericho in the first century, Lunel was classified in 2013 as one of the towns where enforcement of law and order has become a priority. Lunel's 20 per cent unemployment rate, meanwhile, is nearly double the national average.

Despite that, the town doesn't compare particularly badly to most disaffected suburbs surrounding major French cities.

Joblessness in Lunel is below the 25 per cent average in most blighted "banlieues": France's grim, high-rise suburbs where low-income families - often of immigrant origin - languish amid joblessness, discrimination and simmering social tensions at the margins of mainstream society.

Youth unemployment in many "banlieues", which have been hotbeds of recruitment for Syria, is close to 50 per cent.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently likened the conditions suffered by minorities to "apartheid".


But if many of the people who left Lunel to join militants in the last two years fit the alienated and excluded profile of their nearly 1,400 French peers who have taken the same path, others proved that not all aspiring extremist recruits are fleeing hopeless situations.

One Lunel recruit was a computer science student, another a mason, and yet another a cafe manager. Several left for Syria with their wives and children in tow.

"They were scammed," says Lunel sports coach Tahar Akermi, who knew several locals who left for Syria. "They were promised a better world... Most of them were surprised when they were given a Kalashnikov."

Tuesday's arrest of five people in the area on suspicion they abetted or organised recruitment may provide clues as to why Lunel has been particularly affected by the extremist problem.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve noted that while the level of extremist activity in Lunel may be disproportionately high, it was in no way different to the threat the rest of France was facing.

"If the implication of these suspects is confirmed by justice officials, then we will have dismantled a particularly dangerous and organised network this morning," Mr Cazeneuve said.

"Another one of them," he quickly added.

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