Latifa: Fighting Hatred with Love in France

After her son was murdered by Mohamed Merah, Latifa Ibn Ziaten decided to fight for France’s marginalised youth.

On March 11, 2012, Imad Ibn Ziaten, an off-duty French soldier, was shot at point-blank range in a suburb of Toulouse in southwestern France.

His killer was Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman who claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda and would go on to kill two more soldiers as well as three children and a teacher at a Jewish school.

This is the story of Imad’s mother Latifa: The story of a mother whose world fell apart, a mother who became an activist, a mother who chose to fight hatred with love.

It began in Tetuan, northern Morocco, where Latifa was born on January 1, 1960.

She spent the first nine years of her life living Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, to which her mother had exiled herself in a bid to spare her family the shame of her divorce.

When, in 1969, Latifa’s mother died, she and her siblings had to return to Tetuan. She lived first with her father, who refused to allow her to attend school, then with an aunt who provided her with two years of religious schooling and, finally, with her grandmother, the family matriarch who would become Latifa’s role model.

In 1976, when her brother wanted to marry her off to an older man, Latifa ran away. She had already chosen the man she wished to marry. When she’d met Ahmed on a beach at a small seaside resort near Tetuan, it had been love at first sight.

He worked in France and, in 1977, Latifa joined him there. They lived in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen.

Latifa learned to read and write French. She raised four sons and a daughter. She never stopped working – in markets and a school canteen.

In 1986, the family left the town and bought a detached house.

Theirs was a story of success and happiness – until the day in 2012 when Latifa’s life was turned upside down.

Latifa Ibn Ziaten set up an organisation supporting marginalised youth soon after her son was killed by Mohamed Merah in 2012 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Latifa Ibn Ziaten set up an organisation supporting marginalised youth soon after her son was killed by Mohamed Merah in 2012 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]




By Olivier Peyon and Cyril Brody

‘A portrait of France’

Olivier Peyon: It was March 2015, several weeks after the attacks on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher mini-market at Porte de Vincennes. At the time one saw a lot of Latifa Ibn Ziaten in the media.

The organisation she had set up in 2012 following the murder of her son Imad by Mohamed Merah was in constant demand since the attacks in January. For both politicians and journalists, Latifa appeared to be someone to turn to.

When I met Latifa, I met a vivacious woman with a sense of humour, far from the image of the mater dolorosa transmitted by the media. There was complexity in her smile, a contrast between the sadness of mourning and a vitality that was stronger than death.

It was this complexity that made me want to film Latifa and, through her travels and meetings, to draw up a portrait of France in 2017, of her youth, her fears and her hopes.

‘The missing link between two worlds’

Cyril Brody: When we started thinking about the film, we asked ourselves what the personality of Latifa allowed us to understand of today’s France. Her visits to schools and prisons were met with enthusiasm, politicians and media people loved her: she represented the missing link between two worlds. In a period marked by mutual distrust between the institutions of the state and a part of the youth, Muslim or not, she was coming to reestablish the links that appeared to have come undone.

Latifa is a woman who comes from Morocco, who has children who have succeeded, one of whom became a French soldier – the high road to success. She is the incarnation of the model immigrant – the “beautiful story”, as a young girl from Tangier tells her in the film.

However, this story tragically met that of Mohamed Merah, who could have had the same sort of career path as her children but whose trajectory was exactly the opposite.

One side of the history of French integration brutally collided with another which, prior to the death of her son, she largely did not know. And so she decided to deal with these youngsters from the other side, the French who did not feel French because they reckoned they were not considered as such.

In a sense, Mohamed Merah was both very far and very close to Latifa. When she went to meet the young people who mixed with Merah, to a degree, she already knew them, even if she had never set foot in their rundown housing estates.

Latifa's son was killed in an attack in Toulouse in 2012 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Latifa’s son was killed in an attack in Toulouse in 2012 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

‘Education by tears’

Olivier Peyon: Making this movie required us to work around the rather unequivocal image of “saintliness” that the media often offered. We preferred to show another type of positive figure, both more urgent and truer. I do not think Latifa is a saint, but I have seen her ability to give confidence to those with whom she is speaking, to these youngsters whom the meritocracy of the French educational system leaves dumped by the side of the road.

Cyril Brody: She has an unalterable sense of her own legitimacy. She actually has the feeling of being in the right everywhere, whether in the presence of prisoners or of the president. She never asks herself, “Who am I to speak?” she just speaks.

Latifa is not an intellectual. Her intelligence is intuitive. For her, everything goes through her feelings. It’s not calculated: when you speak to her, she can laugh, then suddenly have her eyes full of tears. But this ability to be always connected to her emotions is fantastically effective: I’ve opened up completely, now, let’s go!

It’s a way of overcoming distance, of being direct. Facing her, youngsters who know how to keep their guard up are themselves overcome with emotion, and end up talking about themselves. It’s a sort of cathartic approach, education by tears.

Olivier Peyon: She manages to make people, whoever they are, feel alive when with her. From this point of view, she possesses true generosity: she speaks without being overwhelming, without ever trying to dominate her audience. So when the youngsters from the suburbs are being forever put in their place, she makes them hear something else.

'Latifa runs away from her grief … [but] it always catches up with her' [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
‘Latifa runs away from her grief … [but] it always catches up with her’ [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

‘A march without end’

Cyril Brody: Latifa runs away from her grief … [but] it always catches up with her. She perpetuates the memory of her son and at the same time discovers the world and is fed by it.

Latifa is always on the road and, since March 2012, her home is the road. Our film links with her the trips – train, plane or at the wheel of her own car on the roads of Morocco. It is in these moving spaces that her words often come to us.

From the very beginning we wanted this march without an end, guided as much by the anguish of grief as by the need to get ahead of the problems in order to prevent them because this movement lets us tell the story of France in 2017, its most dramatic and most urgent challenges, as well as its richness and its youth. Latifa was our guide.

This filmmakers’ view has been edited for brevity and clarity.