B.C. teacher becomes a hero in France

Algerian immigrant appreciates the irony of his



Bruce Wallace

National Post


Tuesday, July 16, 2002


An Algerian-born Muslim who is now a naturalized

Canadian says it is "ironic and symbolic" that his

spontaneous act helped prevent a white neo-Nazi French

national from murdering Jacques Chirac, the French


"When it happened, I did what I did just because it

was the right thing to do," said Mohamed Chelali, a

45-year-old science teacher from Ocean Park, B.C., who

was part of a trio of men who grabbed and restrained

alleged gunman Maxime Brunerie on the Champs Élysées

on Sunday.

"But after, when I heard about this person, how he had

a history of being a neo-Nazi, I thought a lot about

the symbolism of me, someone who was once an immigrant

here, intervening to save the President."

Like so many Western European countries, France is in

political turmoil about how to handle a swell of

Muslim immigration and the accompanying social

tensions that oxygenate anti-immigrant extremist

groups. The issue defined France's recent presidential

election in which Chirac crushed a surprising

challenge from Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front and

its anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim message.

Given that so many white French citizens blame their

rising crime rate and diminished sense of security on

Muslims in their midst, Chelali said he could not help

but note the irony of an Algerian Muslim stepping into

the hero's role.

"We were talking this morning and my dad told me that

it was really symbolic how it happened -- he being

Algerian, since some people consider us terrorists

since Sept. 11," said Chelali's 15-year-old son,


Chelali did not have a lot of free time for reflection

yesterday. In addition to fielding a call of gratitude

from Chirac, he spent the day recounting for the

world's media the three-minute sequence of action

during the annual Bastille Day parade.

On Sunday morning, as Chirac finished circling the Arc

de Triomphe while standing in an open-topped jeep,

Chelali -- who was in France as part of a long summer

holiday with his two children and a young family

friend -- was alerted by a commotion beside him.

Brunerie, a 25-year-old student with what police say

are documented connections to French extremist groups

and skinheads, allegedly pulled a .22-calibre rifle

from a guitar case and fired two shots at the French

President. The shots missed because another bystander

had deflected the rifle barrel skyward. Chelali

pounced on the gun as well.

"You don't know what's happening," he recalled

yesterday. "I never even heard the shots."

But the Chelali family's recounting of the

assassination attempt makes it clear that the gunman

was much closer to Mr. Chirac than French security

officials at first admitted. The initial official

account put the shooter at least 150 metres from the


"No way," said Tarik Chelali. "He was 30 metres away

from us when this all happened. Maximum."

Police also appeared keen on portraying Brunerie as a

lone, probably crazed gunman, suggesting he was

emotionally unstable and remanding him for a

psychiatric evaluation.

But it also emerged that Brunerie had contested

municipal elections in a Paris district last year as a

candidate for a far right party that professes to be

fully democratic. He won 2.9 per cent of the vote as a

candidate for the National Republican Movement (MNR),

an offshoot of Le Pen's National Front.

Police also said Brunerie had issued a veiled warning

of coming carnage on what they called an

"English-language Web site." The message told people

to be sure to watch their televisions on Sunday,

although it was not specific about any threat to


Chelali believes his act, while clearly a case of

quick thinking and bravery, does assume a political


Born in Algeria, he emigrated to France as a young

adult. He moved frequently over the years, according

to an autobiographical sketch posted on a community

Web site, becoming, as he put it, "a vagabond of

modern times." He worked in Algeria again, spent time

in Saudi Arabia and Belgium, and ran an import-export

business in France.

But he said he finally left France for Canada in 1992,

in part because of the discrimination he felt as an

Algerian and a Muslim.

"There are good people and bad people everywhere," he

said yesterday. "And France is a country of human

rights. But sometimes ... well, I was treated like

other people from North Africa are treated here, and

I'm very happy we went to Canada."

© Copyright 2002 National Post


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