GONFREVILLE-L’ORCHER, France >> The French rapper Médine’s songs are full of wordplay and jarring twists.
In one video, a woman who appears to be wearing a burqa whips around to reveal a nun’s habit — and a sign reading, “No burqa,” a wry comment on France’s ban on conservative Muslim dress. A cake marked “halal,” when sliced open by a woman dressed to symbolize France, reveals layers in the colors of the national flag, signaling that Muslims can be French, too.
While such satire is often celebrated in France, Médine, a Muslim of Algerian descent, has found himself accused of being a fundamentalist and failing to respect the basic principles of the republic. In contrast to the respect accorded to the irreverent cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper that was the target of a terrorist attack last year, he said, his work is “looked on with the condescension that is reserved for everything coming from the housing projects.”
For more than 30 years, since rap made its way here from America, France has had a subculture of hip-hop artists like Médine, often referred to as “rappers with a conscience.” Most of them are of Arab or African descent, and they pride themselves on giving voice to the millions who make their lives in isolated low-income housing projects. They are now clashing perhaps more than ever with the country’s expanding far right and its vituperative denunciation of migrants and relentless hostility toward Muslims.
As a group, the rappers paint a sorry picture of France. No quaint streets, warm baguettes or cafes are to be found in their videos. They dance amid graffiti and broken glass, treeless streets and rows of bland buildings in the background.
They sing about being shut out. They plead for acceptance. They mourn the violence in their midst, the constant police checks and the boredom of joblessness.
France is the second-largest market for rap after the United States. Experts say that about half of French young people, no matter their ethnic heritage or socioeconomic status, listen to hip-hop. The political rappers — in addition to Médine, the more prominent ones include Kery James, Youssoupha, Axiom, Oxmo Puccino and Abd Al Malik — generally get less airtime on the radio than the more American-style “gangsta” rappers, who exist here, too. But experts say the political rappers have a particular following among France’s poorest youth.
In the basement of a community center here, Médine said his song “Don’t Laik,” whose video featured the nun, was actually meant to champion France’s secularism laws, which were intended to give people room to practice their religion.
The title of the song is a mash-up of the French word for secularism, “laicite,” and the English “don’t like.” In it he mentions Nietzsche and ancient Catholic exorcisms, and suggests that polygamists might be better people than Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the libertine former head of the International Monetary Fund who resigned amid a sex scandal.
“What evil has found a home in the body of Lady Secularism?” he rapped. “Speak your name.”
But far from receiving a defense of his right to pillory a trend in which small-town officials have barred veiled women from visiting beaches and chaperoning school trips, his work, he said, came under attack.
Within weeks of its release last year, “Don’t Laik” had been viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube and, Médine said, he and three of his friends were being investigated on tax evasion accusations. The experience, he said, was sort of funny, sort of intimidating.
Like many others, he fears that those who live in the housing projects in the inner suburbs, known as banlieues, will feel a backlash from the terrorist attacks in Paris last year. As one measure of the hysteria, some point to the reaction by the director Mathieu Kassovitz to the November attacks, in which 130 people were killed in and around Paris.
Kassovitz, whose 1995 movie “La Haine” (“Hatred”) is considered a groundbreaking effort to portray the social ills of the housing projects, posted on Twitter that Muslims had to rise up and stop jihadis or, essentially, they deserved what they got. One respondent answered that he could not even get his girlfriend to call him back; how was he supposed to stop the terrorists? Kassovitz later apologized and took down the post.
Médine, 32, lives in the western port city of Le Havre, where he was born and raised in the housing projects, and still makes music with childhood buddies. If his singing persona is hard-edge, in person he has a boyish, easygoing manner. Taking a break from recording his latest album, he settled on a leather couch in the basement of a community center here and sighed at the thought of what else the coming year might bring.
“We will be hit now by a new wave of stigmatization,” he said, “of anti-Islam and all that goes with that.”
Still, Médine said, he has no intention of lowering his voice. He said he had just finished a song about what he believed was the irresponsible role of the political elite in fanning tensions throughout the country.
While many hip-hop artists might seem more focused on establishing clothing lines, the political rappers in France are more likely to be associated with neighborhood cultural foundations or funds to provide scholarships. And just as the career of the French politician is incomplete without producing a written volume or two, many French political rappers pen books as well.
Médine’s book, named after his 2008 album, “Don’t Panik,” was co-written with a French intellectual, Pascal Boniface. It is a broad discussion between the two, intended, he said, to tone down the mounting fears in France surrounding the young people from the banlieues: Muslims, immigrants and even rappers.
An older rapper, Axiom, 40, has a book titled “I Have a Dream,” a brief biography that pays homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and urges the inhabitants of the projects to step up and take charge of their future.
Yet, after the attacks in Paris in November, in which 10 of his friends were mowed down by the terrorists, he said it was the wrong time to engage the French in a political discussion. Instead, he released “Ludo,” an ode to his childhood friend Ludovic Boumbas, 40, who died trying to protect someone else.
“I decided long ago, never speak out at times like this,” he said. “If you do, you are taken for the enemy.”
If asked, however, Axiom has plenty to say. He calls the situation in the suburbs apartheid. Being unemployed, he said, is “not like a vacation. It is a humiliation. Add to that the humiliation of having your identification papers checked constantly. And the humiliation of not being able to get into a discothèque. And the humiliation of the way that people look at you when that happens.”
All this, he added, and you are “expected to accept it without ever rebelling.”
Three years ago, Kery James, 38, a Muslim who was born in Guadeloupe, released “A Letter to the Republic.” In that song he chides France for “never knowing charity,” for the constant suggestion by some that it is being invaded and sullied by Arabs and Africans, when so many were brought there as cheap labor.
These days, James, who gives concerts to raise money for scholarships, regrets that strident tone, saying that a more hopeful message might have done more good. Shortly after the Paris attacks, he released an early draft of “Knowing and Living Together 2015-2016,” in which he pleads for a united France.
Médine said he wrote first to keep the youth in the housing projects from losing hope and withdrawing from society. But he worried that France is far behind in preventing Muslim fanaticism from taking root.
The French school system, highly structured and unforgiving, has done little to bend to the needs of the children living in the projects, he said. Instead, he said, radical Muslim preachers and other fanatics have gotten a grip on a generation of youth. “It will be very hard to undo that.”