People protesting the closure of the MJC youth organisation march the streets on Lunel on June 13 (photo: Non à la fermeture de la MJC de Lunel Facebook page)

Lunel, a small town in southern France, attracted massive media attention in 2014 and 2015 after about twenty of its young people left for Syria. On June 3, the mayor announced that the city would cut funding to a beloved local youth organisation and establish its own instead. Locals have been up in arms about the “murder” of one of the only associations they say brings together the troubled city.

In the past nine months, Lunel, a southern French town with a population of just 26,000, has gained the unhappy reputation as France’s No. 1 jihad city. At least 20 Lunel youth have left for Syria, and seven have died there. In January, five Lunellois were arrested in an anti-terrorism raid. The events propelled the town into the spotlight as the epitome of France’s malaise with Islam and its disenfranchised youth.

Lunel’s young people have been a national centre of attention and the city has been struggling to respond accordingly. On June 3, Lunel City Hall announced they wouldn’t renew funding for the programmes and premises for the Maison de la Jeunesse et la Culture (MJC), a local branch of a nationwide organisation that has been active in Lunel for over 50 years. The organization, which offers cultural and community activities, counts 300 members from both sides of the tracks. In Lunel, this statement is both metaphorical and literal as the more affluent community lies to north of the train tracks and the poorer, many of whom are of North African heritage, to the south.

On June 5, during a press conference, Mayor Claude Arnaud said that he would create a “real” youth service, which would be housed in the current building used by the MJC. On June 8, he sent a letter officialising the decision.

Despite the mayor’s stance, a support committee for the MJC has already sent numerous letters to Lunel City Hall, the local prefect (a new position that was created after several Lunellois youth died in Syria in October 2014), and Myriam El Khomri, the government minister in charge of urban issues and troubled neighbourhoods. A petition in support of the MJC has garnered more than 2,000 signatures.

People sign a petition against the closure of the MJC youth organisation (photo: Non à la fermeture de la MJC de Lunel Facebook page)

(photo: Non à la fermeture de la MJC de Lunel Facebook page)

The first protest, held on Saturday, June 13, brought out almost 300 people. Another protest was held on June 24 during El Khomri’s second visit to the town (during the first, in February, she and the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve offered Lunel City Hall financial support in light of the jihad departees).

“Gaining trust is a long-term process”

Gilbert Wayenborgh has been a member of the MJC for five years. He says the organisation changed his life by helping him to develop his passion for photography: “I never would have tried it had they not encouraged me and believed in me.” He has been part of a small group leading the fight to keep the MJC, which he says brings the town together.

I think that many people will no longer participate because they don’t trust city hall—numerous people have already told me that. In my experience, you have to reach out to the young people coming from tough neighbourhoods like La Roquette. Gaining trust is a long-term process. For example, it took me ages to build enough trust with the young people in order to take photos of them.

Wayenborgh took this photo of a young member of the MJC during a winter outing organised by the group.

Finally, we will lose a lot as the youth service is transformed from informal to formal. The MJC functions with the help of lots of committed volunteers. You can call Tahar [Akermi, one of the leaders] at any time of day. But people working for the city will be in offices from 9-5, with vacation and weekends. That alone make them less accessible.

I don’t think the mayor recognises that we have problems in our town: they say that the jihad problem was created by the media. But we do have real problems; there is widespread unemployment and racism.

When you talk to people in Lunel, you get the impression that there are no-go zones. For example, members of city hall will never go to La Roquette. But at the MJC, we have links with the young people in those areas. Moreover, after news broke of those who left for Syria, the employees of the MJC were trained to deal with radicalisation. All that is going to waste.

Finally, in activities organized by the MJC, you see people really coming together—which is rare in Lunel. It’s like a little utopia—people of all different ages, colours and backgrounds participate in events.

Weyenborgh took this picture of a group of youth taking part in a renovation project through the MJC.

FRANCE 24 contacted Lunel City Hall spokesperson Christine Bonelli and Ghislaine Arnoux, the elected official in charge of youth and child services to talk about the decision to open a new service and close the MJC.

We wanted to centralize all youth services and give the municipal youth programmes more visibility. This has nothing to do with the “problems with jihad”—which is a media invention. Creation of a youth service was part of the mayor’s campaign platform in March 2014.

As for the closure of the MJC, our decision is final. The city doesn’t have enough money to support both the MJC and the new service, which will offer the same services—and much more—than the MJC. We have offered all three salaried employees of the MJC positions in the new structure.

Bonelli also inferred that the city was frustrated by the MJC’s autonomy and that “sometimes, the MJC is given money for projects that aren’t completed and, other times, they take on projects not authorised by the city. Because the mayor finances them, it falls on his shoulders.”

When asked if they would hold events in La Roquette, Bonelli answered:

“We encourage those people to come out from their neighbourhoods, as well. We aren’t just going to come to them.”

Members of the MJC support committee meet with Minister El Khomri (photo: Gilbert Wayenborgh)

On June 24, members of the support committee, including Wayenborgh, were able to hold a closed meeting with Minister El Khomri during her visit to Lunel. According to Wayenborgh, the minister said she did not have the power to change the Mayor’s choice, but she encouraged the support group to continue fighting. She also said she found the mayor’s response to problems identified with Lunel’s youth “unsatisfactory” and that she had asked him to rework the city contact to include the participation of residents.The minister also agreed to meet with the support committee again in September.

Post written with Brenna Daldorph (@brennad87), journalist at FRANCE 24.