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 Grésilles 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 Grésilles. 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 Grésilles — 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.