They don’t know each other, but they open up without embarrassment. In an association premises in Lunel, in a small street in the city center that was once deserted but is now very much alive, around twenty residents discuss what freedom represents, for each of them. A forty-year-old wrapped up in an elegant coat, a nervous young man in jogging pants and sneakers, a veiled young woman, a worker, a “wise man” in a scarf and barefoot. Here, like every Tuesday, an intergenerational meeting takes place, organized by the Arts et cultures association.
This initiative seems like nothing. However, bringing residents together was one of the keys to finding the beginnings of harmony in this town of 26,000 inhabitants, hit hard in 2014 by the departure of a dozen young people who left to wage jihad in Iraq and in Syria. At least seven of them lost their lives. Under the media spotlight, Lunel had been stamped “Jihad City”, provoking the anger and incomprehension of its inhabitants. Ten years later, the city has undergone a profound change.
A mosque that opened
Pointed out by the prefect of the time for “internal failures”, the Lunel mosque, in 2016, welcomed a new imam who, for four years, was able to renew dialogue with the authorities and establish a more serene climate in the establishment. Unlike his predecessor, he preached in French. “This imam grew up in France, he has a French cultureexplains Djamel Benabdelkader, president of the Union of Muslims of Lunel from 2016 to 2021. He had established a close relationship with both the young faithful and the older ones. » Before returning to Maine-et-Loire in 2020, the imam notably established the opening of the mosque to the general public during Heritage Days and regularly participated in meetings with the population.
Known for his commitment to popular education, Tahar Akermi is one of the Lunel figures working daily for living together, through his Arts and Cultures association. “People have understood that being among themselves brings nothing. I spend my time breaking down barriers between communities. We organize intergenerational meetings but which are also, ultimately, intercultural”, he explains. In Lunel, the associative fabric is dense, with nearly 300 associations. Since the arrival of the new municipal team in 2020, led by Mayor Pierre Soujol, their subsidies have increased by 50%. From now on, associations must be signatories to the charter of respect for the values of the Republic, secularism and citizenship to qualify for a subsidy. The department, the region and the State also contribute to the associative development of the city in the social, cultural and sporting aspects.
A growing population
Despite the bad image conveyed following the departure of young people to Iraq and Syria, the community of communes of Pays de Lunel has gained residents, crossing the barrier of 50,000 souls. Thanks to this growth linked in particular to its geographical location between Nîmes and Montpellier, it has become the 1er January an urban community. The poverty rate remains higher than the national average: 18.3%, and 47.3% in the city’s priority district (QPV), which includes the center and the outskirts.
Since 2021, major work has been undertaken in the city, accompanied by a communication campaign focused on the “metamorph’Ose” of Lunel until 2030. 53 million euros are invested to restore the city’s image . Town planning, housing, shops, public space, business attractiveness. Nataly, a trader for twenty-seven years in the center of Lunel, notices some changes: “Here, there was drug trafficking, the businesses were empty, she testifies, pointing to one of the main streets of the city. For two years, I have clearly seen that there is a desire for openness. We have to see over time. » Hoped for by both residents and elected officials, the “rediscovered pride of the people of Lunel” is working.
The Lunel “sector”
Lunel’s “jihadist network” includes around fifteen people, 13 of whom left for the Iraqi-Syrian zone in stages between 2013 and 2014. At least seven died in the zone.
A trial was held in 2018, after the dismantling of the sector in 2015. Five men were tried, including two “ghosts”. Four of them were sentenced to five to seven years in prison.
If the investigating judges had described a “collective jihadist emulation”the scale of the phenomenon, unrivaled in proportion to the population, remains partly unexplained.