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The Muslims of France

The Muslims of France




To someone not in France, the relationship between France and its Muslims appears contradictory. France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe, and yet no precise figures are available to accurately measure its population because the French laws on laïcité preclude the measuring of religious identity. It is a country that reports some of the most favorable views of Muslims in Europe, according to the European Report on Muslims in the European Union, Discrimination and Islamophobia, yet it is also a country that banned the headscarf in schools in 2005 and that saw serious riots in run-down suburbs where many Muslims live. By Halima Columbo, Freelance Writer — UK  

Historic Presence of Muslims in France 
Muslims first came to France in the first half of the eighth century, when the Umayyads swept up from Andalus (Arabic name given to Muslim-governed parts of the Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492) and took Narbonne and ruled it for 40 years. Defeats at Toulouse and Poitier checked their advance in what has been described as a turning point in history that preserved the Christian European culture in France. Muslim presence remained strong in France until 759 in Narbonne, when Pepin drove the Muslims south of the Pyrenees. Muslim forces also held the coastal village of La Garde Frenet for a 100 years until 990. Moreover, Arabic-Andalusian culture continued to migrate northwards for centuries into southern France to enrich the culture of the Languedoc (a former province in the south of France, now continued in the modern-day regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées) with its troubadours and courtly love and its love of refined living — and what are the French famous for today, if not good food, good living, and l'amour?

France has experienced high immigration, especially since the Second World War. A quarter of French people have at least one parent born outside France. Even so, France has the strongest sense of national identity in Europe. The Muslim population, starting from small origins in 1945, has expanded rapidly. In the last decade, it has nearly doubled and is now estimated to be around six million, mainly because of a birth rate that is double that of the national average. In Lille, a quarter of school children are now Muslim.  

As regards the point of origin, French Muslims come mainly from North Africa, especially from the former French colony Algeria. There are also African, Turkish, and Middle Eastern populations of Muslims. In addition, there are a small number of Asian Muslims and of French reverts such as football manager Bruno Metsu and football player Nicholas Anelka (who changed his name to Abdul-Salam Bilal). The Muslims of France are diverse, with differing levels of practice and belief. However, it appears that French Muslims are more likely to identify themselves as Muslim than in the past, when they may have identified themselves as Arab. For example, Zidane, the footballer, is widely described as a "non-practising Muslim" (Guardian).

The Headscarf Debate
The rapid emergence of a sizeable Muslim population within France has led some people to question whether the French way of life is in danger, or from the opposite perspective, whether Muslims will ever be accepted as truly "French," and whether it is possible to have a "French Islam." It is providing a challenge to the Republican ideals enshrined in Article 1 of the French Constitution, which states that "La France est une République, unie, indivisible, laïque et sociale." The headscarf debate and the 2005 urban riots that forced the declaration of a state of emergency serve to highlight that France is rent with deep social divisions that appear to fall along religious lines.  

In 2005, the French government banned the wearing of the headscarf in schools. Dismissing the argument that it was a religious obligation for Muslim women, the government argued that it was a religious symbol and, as such, inappropriate for a public setting. The vast majority of French people supported the ban, and although opposition to it was vocal, it was not opposed by a large number of people. In fact, it was conceded by a number of the leaders of the Muslim organizations in France. French Muslims are generally supportive of laïcité, seeing in it protection of freedom of thought and religion.

Social Conditions 
In 2005, the French government banned the wearing of the headscarf in schools.

Th e biggest problem facing the Muslims does not relate to the practice of their religion but to the social conditions in which they live. The Muslims of France are heavily concentrated in certain areas, in the Pas de Calais, the Ile de France, Lyons, Provence Cote d'Azure, and Rhone-Alps, in suburbs described as "ghettos" with poor housing and schooling, high unemployment rates, and widespread racism. A study by the Sorbonne found that a standard CV with a Muslim name was five times less likely to elicit an interview that the same CV with a non-Muslim name, and the study concluded that racial profiling was widespread among employers at degree level. 

The daily experience of being treated as a second-class citizen underlay the 2005 urban riots when property was attacked and there were violent confrontations with police in areas across France with large Muslim populations. Therefore, some commentators tried to label these as a "Muslim problem." This is dismissed by Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born intellectual and writer on Islam and Muslims in the West, who is currently a senior research fellow at St. Anthony's College, Oxford. In commentating on the riots, he stated that such labeling was a most unhelpful approach, nothing more than a scare-mongering tactic to avoid dealing with the real issue, which is the social problem. It is not that the Muslims disagree with Republican values but that they want these values applied to them. 

The inequality in social conditions is reflected also in the political and cultural landscape. Muslims are massively underrepresented politically, with no Muslim members of Parliament, a situation that was described by Zair Kedadouche — a former government adviser, member of the High Council on Integration, and author of La France et les Beurs — after the last presidential election as equivalent to the US in the early 1960s. Kedadouche has also criticized the media for ignoring the existence of the non-French minorities in their programming. More recently, Farah Nayeri, a Europe correspondent for Bloomberg News, argued that France is recognizing the need to change and that there is a new wave of books, films, and cartoons aimed at integrating Muslims into the cultural mainstream, such as the film Mauvais fois, a comedy about a relationship between a French Jew and a French Muslim.

Political Participation

Recent years have also seen the rise in a number of associations and advocacy organizations trying to encourage political participation and to campaign against racism and inequality. The government got involved, with the formation in 2002 of the French Council of the Muslim Faith with the agreement of the three main Muslim organizations in France. The council is intended to remove administrative obstacles to the building of mosques and to encourage the education of imams in France. In 2006, the Avicenne Institute in Lille was opened as a college for the training of French imams. In a major departure from laïcité, it is expected to receive state funding next year.  

The Muslims of France face four main concerns. The most urgent and perhaps most difficult to achieve in a country undergoing economic reform, is equal treatment in the job market, education, and social services. Another concern is that as a sizeable minority within France, Muslims merit representation politically and culturally. The third and fourth concerns are related to French Muslims themselves rather than the government or society. They themselves are responsible for developing their identity as French Muslims to show how Islam may manifest itself in France and to continue to develop the institutions to meet their religious needs.


21 March 2007  Islam Online

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