At Paris Bistro La Belle Equipe, a Vision of France Is Damaged

PARIS—Most mornings, Hodda Saadi arrived at work before 8 a.m. to open the new bistro La Belle Equipe, where the onetime waitress had become a manager and was soon to become a shareholder.

Then on Friday, Islamist gunmen sprayed the restaurant with bullets, killing 19 people. Ms. Saadi, the French-born daughter of Tunisian immigrants, and several of her friends—including a Mexican woman, a Congolese man and the Muslim partner of the restaurant’s Jewish owner—were slaughtered.

“My boss is a Jew. He was married to a Muslim,” said

Elie Renton,

a chef at La Belle Equipe, who left the restaurant shortly before the attack. “White, black, Arab—who cares? They were all my friends.”

Friday’s massacre, which killed at least 129 people across Paris, underscores a collision between two visions of France. One is of a country deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines, torn between a disaffected Muslim minority and the growing popularity of the far-right National Front party. The other exists in the multiethnic mix that both ran and patronized La Belle Equipe.

Officially, France is a secular republic where national identity grows from founding principles such as freedom and equality, rather than religion or race. That stance pervades all aspects of life here; in public schools, religious symbols such as head scarves are banned, and the national government doesn’t collect population data on ethnicity or faith. Writer

Emile Zola

is still widely celebrated for his 19th century essay “J’Accuse,” which condemned an anti-Semitic trial. In 1998, the country’s World Cup victory was embraced as a symbol of a new France that was “black, blanc, beur,” or black, white and Arab.

But the reality has been much more complex.

Hodda Saadi, in a photo from her Facebook page. She was killed Friday while celebrating her 35th birthday.



Photo:

via social media

The majority-Catholic country is home to an estimated five million Muslims—one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities—who often complain of being treated as second-class citizens, despite their growing numbers. France’s unemployment rate stands just over 10%—for non-European immigrants, the number is about double, according to France’s government data agency.

Driven partly by fears of the growing Muslim minority, polls have shown the National Front is on track to control a northern region of France in coming elections. In October, party leader Marine Le Pen went on trial for comparing Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.

January’s terrorist attacks, which killed 17 people and targeted satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, exacerbated tensions. French Jews said the attacks crystallized fears that they aren’t safe in France. French Muslims reported a backlash after the attacks, and this week said they are bracing themselves for more.


That’s why it hurts so much. The terrorists knew exactly what they were aiming at.


— Philippe Ducloux, an elected official for the 11th arrondissement

La Belle Equipe, however, stands as one of many counterpoints to those rifts nationwide. The relatively affluent neighborhood boasts a Chinese supermarket, a Middle Eastern grocery, a Lebanese pastry counter, and a cheese shop with products from France’s Savoie region. On the wall of the cheese store, a video loop shows French cows being milked.

“This neighborhood is really young and mixed, everyone living together, open to the world,” said Philippe Ducloux, an elected official for the 11th arrondissement. “That’s why it hurts so much. The terrorists knew exactly what they were aiming at.”

Under exposed lightbulbs, La Belle Equipe served neo-bistro style dishes—beef tataki with soy sauce and honey alongside French classics like duck parmentier.

The staff was as diverse as the clientele. The bistro is majority-owned by

Grégory Reibenberg,

whose associates include Pascal Moal, a Catholic. Earlier this year, Ms. Saadi had taken over as manager, her friends said. Her brother Khaled was a waiter.

“Everyone is from everywhere. But we never talk about it. It doesn’t matter,” Mr. Moal said. Referring to tensions and the rise of the extreme right, he says, “We’re spared from all that here in our little village.”

Ms. Saadi was born in the modest industrial city of Le Creusot, in Burgundy about 200 miles southeast of Paris. Her father, Khalifa, moved from Tunisia in 1970 and worked as a mason, his brother said. His wife joined shortly after, and all but one of their eight children were born in the French town of 23,000 people—a place dominated by metal factories though a short drive away from the region’s famed vineyards.

“We’re a small city of immigrants,” said

André Billardon,

mayor of Le Creusot. “The Saadi family was an ordinary one, well-integrated.”

Djamila Houd, 41, of France, in an undated photo.



Photo:

Reuters

Ms. Saadi and her siblings spent their childhood and adolescence in the town. As a teenager, she liked music and boys and would visit her girlfriends to do her hair, said Hocine Chabane, 37, who lived close by.

In Paris, Ms. Saadi started waiting tables to put herself through university. But after a stint working at Paris’s chamber of commerce, friends said Ms. Saadi returned to the restaurant business with a new dream: to run her own place.

Mr. Reibenberg made Ms. Saadi a manager at Café des Anges, a few minutes’ walk away. He said she was to become a shareholder in La Belle Equipe. “She’s my little sister, I’ve known her for 14 years,” said Mr. Reibenberg.

Ludovic Boumbas, 40, from Congo. “He was one of those people everyone loved,” said Lilian Rigobert, a friend.



Photo:

Reuters

In July, Ms. Saadi moved over to the new bistro. With her success, she was supporting her parents in Bourgogne, friends said. Members of Ms. Saadi’s family couldn’t be reached to comment.

On Friday, Ms. Saadi had planned a dinner with friends and family at La Belle Equipe to celebrate her recent 35th birthday.

Ciprian Calciu, 32, of Romania



Photo:

Reuters

Among the guests were her sister, Halima, who was visiting from Senegal, in western Africa, where she moved earlier this year with her husband and two young children. Djamila Houd, Mr. Reibenberg’s partner, a French woman of Algerian descent, was also there.

Lacri Pop, a Romanian woman who had worked at Café des Anges, was there with her partner, Ciprian Calciu.

Hyacinthe Koma,

who worked in retail, had previously worked at another sister restaurant in eastern Paris. Also there was Michelli Gil Jaimez, a Mexican woman who had also been a manager at La Belle Equipe.

Lacri Pop, 29, of Romania, in undated photo from her Facebook page.



Photo:

Reuters

Romain Feuillade, a 31-year-old Frenchman who managed another restaurant with Mr. Reibenberg, was engaged to a Muslim woman of Senegalese origin. The wedding invitations arrived at their home on Friday.

Ludovic Boumbas,

40, from Congo, worked as an IT specialist for

FedEx Corp.

and had his own birthday party last month with some of the same friends. “He was one of those people everyone loved,” said

Lilian Rigobert,

a friend.

All these guests were among the 19 people killed at the bistro Friday night.

Youcef Boudjema, who works for Mr. Reibenberg, turned up just minutes after the attack.

“Hodda just got back together with her ex,” he said. “She was always smiley, but she had never been happier.”

On Tuesday, he says he picked up Ms. Saadi’s unopened birthday presents at the police station. “I don’t dare to open them,” he said.

Later that night, while Ms. Saadi’s parents and close friends gathered at her brother’s house, colleagues showed up at Café des Anges. As the night wore on, the bar grew crowded with mourners and dozens of people poured onto the street for a moment of silence.

Applause broke out, and people started toasting their murdered friends. “To Ludo!” “To Lacri!”

Write to Jason Chow at jason.chow@wsj.com, Sam Schechner at sam.schechner@wsj.com and Nick Kostov at Nick.Kostov@wsj.com

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