X Close

The truth about the Battle of Dijon The orgy of violence stemmed from Chechen pride, not entrenched French racism

A burnt car in the Gresilles area of Dijon. Credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/ Getty

A burnt car in the Gresilles area of Dijon. Credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/ Getty


June 22, 2020   6 mins

Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, rarely attracts the world’s attention. There is Dijon mustard of course. There is Dijon blackcurrant liqueur (Cassis de Dijon). There are many beautiful, old Burgundian streets and buildings. But of all the medium to large cities in France, Dijon (population: 159,000) is surely the least talked about.

Then, abruptly, last weekend Dijon had the great misfortune to become newsworthy. War broke out, we were told, between “Chechen gangs” and “Arab gangs”. The dispute was, some French media reported, about the right to traffic drugs. The Daily Mail announced that the French army had been sent in to restore order. Marine Le Pen compared Dijon to Beirut. Similar “wars between migrant communities” now threatened, she said, all over France.

All these reports were, I believe, wrong or deeply misleading. What did happen in Dijon over four days the other weekend was surreal and disturbing. But the incidents defy simple explanation or political point-scoring. They say, perhaps, more about Chechnya, and the values — good and bad — of exiled Chechens, than they do about the wider racial issues of France. The severity of the violence probably owed something to the frustrations of France’s recent nine weeks of Covid lockdown. The political and media reaction was skewed by the fact that the events occurred while France was in the midst of a debate about race and policing – in the wake of the George Floyd killing in the United States.

On Sunday evening, on the third night of violence in Dijon, President Emmanuel Macron happened to be addressing the nation on TV. He said, among many other things, that he would resist all pressure to splinter France into ethnic communities.

So what had happened over four days in Dijon? There are several conflicting accounts. Here, briefly, are the facts that I have been able to establish.

On 9th June a 15-year-old (some say 16-year-old) boy of Chechen origin was badly beaten up outside a chicha (hookah) bar in central Dijon. His attackers were local men in their 30s of African and North African origin. According to the Chechen version of events, the men were drug-dealers. The injured boy apparently had no connection with drugs. The dealers attacked him because local Chechens were known to be hostile to drug-trafficking. They put a gun in the boy’s mouth and said: “We hate Chechens. We’re going to let you live so you can tell the other Chechens what’s going to happen to them.”

Three days later a convoy of cars arrived in Dijon packed with Chechen men from several other parts of France, as well as Belgium and Germany. Local media and police say that there were 100 of them; the Chechens say that there were only 15. They smashed up the chicha bar, assaulted its owner and then rampaged through the multi-racial Les Grésilles area of council estates just north-east of central Dijon.

The next day — last Saturday, 13 June —  members of local drug gangs threatened and attacked local Chechens. A new convoy of cars and 50 to 100 Chechen men returned that evening, apparently hoping to agree, or force, a deal with the people in Les GrĂ©silles and learn the names of the drug dealers.

A quarrel broke out. Shots were fired — by members of a local drug dealing gang, according to the Chechens. A pizzeria owner was wounded but not seriously. The next day about 100 Chechen men gathered once again in Les GrĂ©silles. Local media, backed by video footage, reported that the invaders smashed windows and assaulted passers-by. A local man tried to ram them in a car. He crashed and overturned the car and was beaten up by the Chechens.

Local people complained that the police stood back and made no attempt to intervene. No arrests were made.

Finally, last Monday night, the Chechens stayed away. But 200 or so young men from Les GrĂ©silles — of various ethnic origins, African and North African and European, judging by the footage — rampaged through their own streets and invaded other council estates nearby. They waved guns and knives, overturned and burned cars, and smashed windows and bus-shelters. Four arrests were made.

This orgy of revenge violence is explained by local people and police in various ways. Anger with police for failing to prevent the Chechen attacks; a statement of strength by the local drugs gangs; frustration because the Chechens had failed to turn up for a fourth night of mayhem.

Police and gendarmerie reinforcements were deployed, belatedly, on Sunday and Monday; the French army was not. Gendarmes are part of the French military, but they are policemen not soldiers. The Daily Mail may or may not be aware of that fact.

Whatever Ms Le Pen may say, these events were not a war between different ethnic communities — still less a ‘war between Chechens and Arabs’ as the British tabloids reported. There is practically no Chechen community in Dijon — 100 people at most. In the whole of France, there are perhaps 30,000 Chechens, concentrated in Paris, Alsace and the Nice areas. All are refugees from their homeland’s conflict with Moscow. Most are legally resident in France. Some are not.

Nor does this story have anything to do with turf battles over drug trafficking rights. All Chechens that I spoke to insist that they have a common hatred of drugs and therefore often come into conflict with drugs gangs in France.

They insist that the battle of Dijon was about Chechen concepts of honour, pride and self-defence — a reflex forged in the civil wars fought by the majority muslim country against Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation from the 1990s. Whenever Chechens are attacked, a section of the Chechen diaspora in western Europe feels the need to take the law into its own hands. There have been similar, but smaller, events in recent months in Troyes, Rouen and Nice.

“Chechens defied Russia. They’re not going to let themselves be humiliated by a few thugs,” said Chamil Albakov, spokesman for the European Chechen Assembly. He rejected suggestions that there was systematic racial tension in France between Chechens and other migrant or refugee communities and especially fellow muslims of North African origin. The Chechen quarrel was with drug-traffickers and other criminals, he said. “Otherwise, we live together and in the mosques we pray together.”

A police intelligence report leaked to Le Parisien paints a more complex and darker picture. A section of the Chechen community in France — by no means all — is involved in organised crime, though not drug dealing. Others have taken over many of the jobs in the overnight security and club bouncer business, some legitimate and some more dubious and violent.The Chechen convoy which descended on Dijon was, French police believe, composed of a mixture of night security guards, club bouncers and criminals.

Heda Inderbaeva, 29, who came to France as a refugee from Chechenya at the age of 11, is an unofficial spokeswoman for the 30,000 or so Chechens in France. “Direct action like this is wrong,” she told UnHerd. “We live now in a country of laws. There are other ways to react. But this was born of frustration that many Chechens feel about the low level of police action against drug-trafficking in the poorer districts of French cities and suburbs — a sense that the police are not protecting us so we have to do it ourselves. The frustration perhaps built up during the Covid lockdown when many people felt abandoned by the police.”

Some politicians, including Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, suggest that the real motive behind the violence was a conflict over drug territory. Ms Inderbaeva rejects that argument out of hand. “Yes there are some Chechen criminals but they traffic in cars or maybe arms,” she said. “Never drugs, never women, never children. Chechens have a horror of that kind of thing.”

The picture of France that emerges from the Dijon story is not flattering or positive. But it is not — whatever Ms Le Pen may glibly say — a picture of a country that is about to erupt into generalised, Lebanese-type intra-community warfare. Still less is it the Chechen vs. Arab war that British tabloids suggested.

Anyone who has spent some time in the troubled estates of the French banlieues (inner suburbs) knows that they are social ghettoes but not, in any strict sense, racial ghettoes. Any cité (tower block estate) might house a score of ethnicities from Algerian to Albanian. Fighting between gangs of kids, or the composition of football teams, is based on territory, not racial background. The footage from Dijon showed black, brown and some white youths rampaging together in anti-Chechen fury.

The Chechens, with a different history and different reason for being in France, are an exception. They are bound by their own codes of honour and self-defence. For a variety of reasons, partly their own cultural attitudes, maybe sometimes their racist attitudes, they have had more difficulty in integrating. Some have plunged enthusiastically into crime. Other law-abiding Chechens, and sometimes the criminals themselves, find it hard to accept the unacceptable state of endemic insecurity and crime in French inner suburbs.

That may be the real story of the battle of Dijon. A series of vigilante raids, disturbing in themselves, was transmuted by some media and political commentary into a war over drug empires or a harbinger of ethnic conflict. The everyday, drug-related violence in the inner suburbs of many French towns and cities — even peaceful Dijon — goes virtually unreported.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

john_lichfield

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

28 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

“Yes there are some Chechen criminals but they traffic in cars or maybe arms,” she said. “Never drugs, never women, never children. Chechens have a horror of that kind of thing.”

That’s a big relief then.

Pete Kreff
Pete Kreff
3 years ago

A strange article.

If one of the Arabs said “We hate Chechens”, then the claim that this violence was entirely unrelated to a war between ethnic groups sounds implausible from the off.

The information that Chechens from all over Europe descended on Dijon to back up their fellow countrymen also shows a clear divide along ethnic lines, surely.`

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago

A nicely written report, but I doubt whether it is apolitical given the couple of digs at Ms Le Pen.

However this quote from the unofficial Chechen spokeswoman caught my eye “We live now in a country of laws. There are other ways to react.”

Well unfortunately, just like in the UK, policing by consent is a thing of the past in most city centres and the surrounding urban sprawl. The future for policing and law and order is going to define our civilisations over the next decade. Personally, I don’t think it looks pretty.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cox

For many years John Lichfield wrote for The Independent, which gives you a good idea of his political sympathies. Namely, pro-chaos, anti-western, pro-welfare, anti-enterprise and all the rest of it.

sheybby
sheybby
3 years ago

OK, as a French-Tunisian citizen who grew up in one of these popular suburbs, I feel the need to clarify a few things.

Mr. Lichfield is right when he says there is no race war happening in France. Violent incidents between different ethnic communities are fortunately rare in France. However, his piece only provides a narrow view of the dynamics at play in the areas predominantly populated by low-income immigrants and their children.

The most worrying part of the Dijon incidents is the fact that public authorities are increasingly being displaced by informal authorities such as gang leaders and religious leaders in the governance of France’s ethnically concentrated areas. Muslim communities settling on the outskirt of French cities are highly conservative, and the separation between Church and State is viewed with suspicion.

In Dijon, “peace talks” between Chechen and French-North African communities were organized by the local mosque, and guess what? Municipal authorities were not involved. In that vein, many parts of the country, the ones that are ethnically concentrated are increasingly living outside of the reach of French public authorities.

The Dijon incidents highlight the failure of France’s immigration policies that are mostly based on humanitarian principles. Thanks to lax family reunion and asylum laws, highly conservative populations settled in what were already disfranchised areas plagued with high criminality levels and religious conservatism.

France has been dealing with the problÚme des banlieues for nearly five decades now. If you wonder why the problem has not been solved yet, that’s because the ghetto keeps regenerating itself thanks to the continuous arrival of immigrants with low education levels. The fact is, many native-born children of immigrants with limited education obtain lower levels of educational achievement than those who settle in France with diplomas. In turn, lower levels of educational achievement are correlated with higher criminality levels.

Simply put, many immigrants settling in France lack the cultural and educational capital to properly integrate into French society. Racial discrimination does not help but the recent protests against racial discrimination do not address the elephant in the room, i.e., how the first generation’s educational background and not race is the real determining factor in the success of second-generation immigrants in France.

Although France does not allow for the collection of statistics based on ethnicity, if it did, stats would show that children of Algerian doctors or Malian engineers have integrated much better into French society than let’s say children of Moroccan construction workers.

Another uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of violent crimes committed in urban areas are the work of young people of African descent, most of which live in ethnically concentrated ghettos. If we could conduct a survey to investigate the ethnic and educational backgrounds of French-African convicted for violent crimes, we would find that the overwhelming majority of them come from working-class backgrounds “having parents with limited education.

I am not trying to downplay the impact of racism on French-African communities. I have and I still struggle to find employment due to my “exotic” name and physical traits. However, racism goes both ways in France. On one hand, if you apply for any position with a non-European first name, the chances you will land a good job are significantly lower than those of ethnic Frenchs. On the other hand, African communities can be brutally racist themselves whether it is against white people or against other communities. The worst racist terms I have heard in France to describe black people came from French-North Africans.

I grew up in Venissieux, a working-class suburb of Lyon. The city is known for hosting one of the country’s most infamous neighbourhood: les Minguettes. To level the field, public authorities invested a lot of money in rehabilitating the neighbourhood’s infrastructures. Now, les Minguettes possesses a brand-new tramway connecting to one of Lyon’s major transportation hub, a theatre, a music conservatory, a health clinic…

Despite enjoying the kind of quality infrastructures many French rural areas desperately lack, les Minguettes remains a hotbed of criminality and poverty ” lagging in terms of educational attainment. The reason is simple, low-income immigrants with limited education keep settling in the neighbourhood, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty and violence.

The blind spot of the French Left is its refusal to acknowledge there are no solutions to the problems created by the concentration of immigrants with limited education and conservative mores. The left falsely assumes that if given the appropriate means to succeed, all children of immigrants will naturally do so. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Additionally, a strange alliance is forming between radical racialist organizations and members of the urban bourgeois classes living in the gentrified and expensive downtowns of France’s large metropolitan areas.

The urban white bourgeois classes are engaging in a virtue-signalling pissing contest”denouncing systemic racism, police brutality, and other injustices committed against French-Africans. However, the same bourgeois class is living in the least ethnically diverse districts of French cities.

Even worse, the Woke movement is purposefully ignoring the fact that many of the very people they claim to support have no love for them and their sexually fluid lifestyles. Lower-income ethnic minorities typically vote for the Left because the right is more critical of immigration and Islam in general. However, when it comes to their own moral values and mores, they are as far right as you can get ” holding traditional gender roles beliefs while viewing homosexuality as an abomination.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  sheybby

Thank you for your very detailed and informative post. It is considerably better than anything that I have read by a ‘western’ journalist, but that is hardly surprising. Perhaps the most troubling line in your post is:

‘Muslim communities settling on the outskirt of French cities are highly conservative, and the separation between Church and State is viewed with suspicion.’

Notwithstanding the fact that this conservatism often seems to manifest itself as violence and sexual harassment etc, it implies that the Muslim communities will never accept the structure of the French state. Nor do they wish to return to, or live in, one of the 54 Muslim states where there is no separation between Church and State. The logical conclusion is that they wish to overturn the French State and impose an Islamic theocracy. But we have known that for some years now.

sheybby
sheybby
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

To be fair, I don’t think there is any overarching strategy from working-class muslim communities to overthrow the French government. They simply want to hold onto their traditional beliefs while enjoying first-world standards of living.
The rising conservatism is the byproduct of not taking into consideration the educational and cultural background of immigrants who aspire to settle in the West.
Public authorities should not let an ethnic or a religious community become overrepresented at the risk of seeing a nation emerges within a greater nation.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago
Reply to  sheybby

Excellent piece, I wonder if the Unheard editors have read this and may consider giving you a platform? In England lauded as an ethnic diverse society we gloss over the areas as you have outlined. Bradford in the fifties welcomed Pakistani immigrates to work in the mills. Good idea, but because of their inflexible social structure it soon turned sour. Areas were taken over using very nasty methods. A senior Pakistani Police Officer at the time was appalled that immigrants creating their own ghettos were from groups not allowed in most Pakistani cities. Returning two decades later it was a sad place to be. I would not live there.
The currant blame culture will no doubt have all the answers but despite that nonsense I believe we can still make the UK a fit and kindlier place for everyone.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Gerry Fruin

Bringing in Pakistani immigrants to work in the mills was not ‘a good idea’ given that the British textile industry had already been declining for some decades. A better idea would have been much better technical/industrial education in British schools, which might have prevented Britain becoming the ‘sick man of Europe’ bu the 1970s Of course, this would also have required the unions to behave reasonably, which would never have happened.

P C
P C
3 years ago
Reply to  sheybby

Thank you for that very informative comment, much of which has similarities to British cities – and it is very much a ‘city’ issue, as can be seen very clearly in London and some of our Northern cities.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
3 years ago
Reply to  sheybby

Thank you for your view of the WHOLE situation.

nick woods
nick woods
3 years ago
Reply to  sheybby

Beautifully written essay, more on this subject please! All of Europe apart from central and Eastern nations who have their home grown Roma problem, are facing fragmented societal issues as a consequence of post colonial influxes.
Homogenous populations, notably Japan, are peaceful and safe.

sheybby
sheybby
3 years ago
Reply to  nick woods

Thank you. Well if Unherd is willing to accept submissions from some random French guy with no real credentials, I’ll be happy to contribute.

I do not believe multiculturalism can work in the context of the European nation-state however, I think diversity can be a strength when properly executed.

Like I mentioned in my initial comment, I think educational achievement and prior adherence to liberal values (in the classical sense of the term) should be considered before letting immigrants settle in western societies.

Greg C.
Greg C.
3 years ago

“Any cité (tower block estate) might house a score of ethnicities from Algerian to Albanian.”

But not indigenous French

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Greg C.

I note that Mr Lichfield does not house himself in one of these tower block, but in rural Normandy. (I write this from a pretty mult-iculti part of a major city).

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Yet another example of Lack of Moral Fibre by the Police. Dijon joins Bristol as yet another example of the abject cowardice of those who are very generously paid and pensioned to protect us.
I wonder what the “Wolf Warrior” response of the Chinese ‘Police’ would have been?

nick woods
nick woods
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

The wolf warrior response would be a lavishly equipped re-education centre with compulsory attendance with aside order of mosque demolition.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  nick woods

Plus the consumption of all animal and insect life within a ten mile radius. Obligatory performance of the Kowtow when meeting a ‘Wolf Warrior’ official, and compulsory teaching of the ‘horrors’ of the Unequal Treaties, Boxer Rebellion and Opium Wars.

Ian McGregor
Ian McGregor
3 years ago

I’m glad Mr Lichfield explained that. Unfortunately his conclusions seem to be in denial of the facts and his ability to gain credulity with anyone outside a liberal elitist, blinkered cabal might be limited.

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago

Oh well the violence was multicultural so that’s OK then………..This is what happens when you import large numbers of people from violent tribal societies into advanced western ones

Andrew McGee
Andrew McGee
3 years ago

I see problems with this account. The author tries in effect to defend the Chechens as being bound by their own culture and code of ‘honour’. The answer is very simple. They now live in France. The laws that apply to them (and to everyone else living in France, without exception) are the laws of France. Those laws do not permit ANYONE to take matters into their own hands in this way for any reason whatsoever. Those laws entirely overrule any Chechen culture or code of honour. While in France the Chechens must strictly observe French law. Failure to do so deserves unqualified condemnation. It also deserves the taking of severe action under the crininal law. I do not see that there is a lot more to be said.

deni-jusupov
deni-jusupov
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

They took matteers into their own hands cuz the police was too scared to clean up these areas from drug dealers. You think police would’ve done anything about the drug dealers who beat up that boy? NO. So stfu now. Just cuz you dont have the balls to come up for your people doesn’t mean nobody has.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
3 years ago

No ‘community’ should exist in France except the French community. Holding on to every one of your old nationalisms and rivalries, and reinforcing them through crime and violence on French soil is not welcome in your adopted country – leave it behind! No country should have to tolerate the importation of criminality.

naillik48
naillik48
3 years ago

Aujourd’ hui Dijon ..demain Stuttgart et apres…..?

Andy Tuke
Andy Tuke
3 years ago

I’m glad this article has put all those concerns to rest, I was beginning to worry that a bunch of muslim immigrants running riot in a European town was a bad thing

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

The footage from Dijon showed black, brown and some white youths rampaging together in anti-Chechen fury.

In the words of the old anti racist slogan:

“Black and white, unite and fight”.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago

So the police are sneered at once again by a journalist, and one with 20 years experience writing in the Independent. I cringe. The Independent bringing you the facts. Really! More likely plagiarised items from a travel brochure or copies of someone who was there perhaps? It illustrates the lack of fact based articles we have sadly come to expect from our arrogant, and ignorant media. There is an other article by a very wordy boy in today’s Unheard which I refuse to take even with a pinch of salt, and worse he promotes himself a ‘war correspondent’. Come on Unheard up your game, set a higher standard. It is sad when the comments here are far superior to the main piece. Then again don’t bother and I’ll just enjoy reading what others honest opinions are. Many who clearly know their subject.

tjosephus
tjosephus
3 years ago

Enjoyed the piece. Have no idea as to the veracity of the information presented but at least it felt like journalism…..