Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
As the French government keeps no official statistics on the number of Muslims in France, the estimates vary widely, with some suggesting an approximate range of 7 to 9 per cent. The majority of Muslims come from the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, the majority of whom have French nationality.
According to data from the 1999 Census, there are around 950,000 Arabic speakers (plus 220,000 occasional speakers) of different dialects. There are an estimated 1.5 – 2 million Berber speakers in France, including Kabyle (1 million), Chleuh (0.5 million), Rifain (300,000) and Chaoui (200,000).
The majority live in cities, especially Paris. There are concentrations of North African and Muslim communities in the regions of Île-de-France and Nord-Pas-de-Calais in the north-west and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Rhône-Alpes in the south-east.
The segregation of many North Africans in city and suburban ghettoes results from the 1950s housing policy of the government for temporary immigrants, as well as from low-paid work, the different culture, language and religion, and the rejection of North African immigrants by many belonging to the majority population. There is discrimination in housing, education and employment, and unemployment is higher than the national average.
Algeria was conquered by France by 1830 and gained independence in 1962. Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 (Treaty of Fez) until it achieved independence in 1956. Tunisia, a French protectorate from 1881, also became independent in 1956.
In 1873 the French government began to expropriate Algerian land for French settlers, known as ‘pieds noirs’, who came to monopolize the fertile land. Initially the need for seasonal farm labour was met by Kabyle Berbers from the mountains, but as agriculture became more commercial, the displaced plains Algerians replaced the Kabyle, who migrated to France. Algerians were regarded as French subjects and had the right to full citizenship, but only if they renounced Islam and converted to Christianity. The Algerians’ arrival in the French cities was strongly resented by the French working class.
During World War I, Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians were recruited into the army and many thousands died. During and after the war they relieved labour shortages. Most were repatriated after a short time to be replaced by others. French race hatred towards the immigrants reached a peak in 1923–4. The first mosque was opened in Paris by Algerians in 1926. French antagonism towards the immigrants increased again in the 1930s during the economic depression. The Algerian independence movement was launched in the inter-war years.
Moroccans and Tunisians were accused of collaborating with the Vichy government during World War II. In Algeria the 1945 victory celebration became a rebellion against colonial rule, which was met with savage reprisals. From 1954 to 1962 there was a bloody civil war in Algeria between the colonial government representing the French settler elite and Algerian nationalists. The colonial government and French Army officers opposed the French government’s attempts to make peace, which led to the French government’s collapse in 1958. The issue bitterly divided French opinion. General Charles de Gaulle, the Second World War hero, was voted in as President, but instead of supporting the colonists as they expected, he announced a referendum for Algerians to choose whether to stay part of France or to become independent.
From 1945 Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans were recruited to help in the post-war reconstruction of France. In 1947 the French government granted French citizenship to all Algerians and freedom of movement between Algeria and France. Algerian immigrants were subject to violent attacks during the independence war. After 1962 the French government restricted immigration. Some 500,000 Algerians returned from France to Algeria. The colonist ‘pieds noirs’ were given grants to resettle in France, including Corsica, where they gained control of the vineyards and the wine trade. Between 80,000 and 100,000 ‘Harkis’ – Algerians who had fought on the side of the colonists – also came to France, many of them settling in the south. Despised by both the host population and their fellow Algerians, they were housed in special camps for their own protection. There is still animosity between Harkis and other Algerians.
In 1962 there were around 350,000 French Muslims in France, but Algerians alone numbered 470,000 in 1968 and 800,000 by 1982. In 1974 the government ended its recruitment of immigrants, imposed fines on employers who hired undocumented immigrants, and put a stop to family reunification. However, the Conseil d’Etat (the highest court) ruled in 1978 that a ban on family reunification was unlawful. The government offered grants to immigrants if they returned home, but most North Africans did not take up the offer. Numbers have continued to rise, mainly through family reunification and children born in France. There has also been illegal immigration.
Despite international criticism of the Algerian military government’s annulment of the general elections which would have returned the civilian Islamist movement to power in 1991, the French government appeared to have cooperated with the Algerian government in seeking out and deporting Algerian dissidents in the mid-1990s.
Racist attacks by individuals and gangs against North African communities rose in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. The government’s vigilance in seeking out Muslim extremism also increased, reflected in the passing of a November 2001 security law which allowed search without a warrant under certain circumstances, triggering significant resistance from North African communities. In 2003 the government also formed the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM) to represent the Muslim community in France: The CFCM is also intended to open a dialogue between the government and the community regarding Muslim practices. One of the reasons for the creation of the CFCM was for the French government to approve and provide funding for imams, as poor training and low salaries of imams were blamed for fostering an extremist Muslim subculture.
Authorities also targeted many visible markers of religious difference, justified in the context of France’s secular philosophy of ‘laïcité’. In 2004, for example, the government introduced a law banning the wearing of overtly religious symbols such as the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban and heavy Christian crosses by pupils and staff at schools. The aim was to keep education secular and thus reduce inter-faith tensions, but the effect was the opposite, particularly as it was regarded by many as specifically aimed at Muslim communities. A number of Muslim girls were expelled from school for defying the ban. In April 2011, France became the first European country to ban the full-face veil, including the Muslim burqa and the niqab. The ban applied to public places. According to statistics gathered prior to the decision in 2009, an estimated 1,900 Muslim women in France are affected by the full-face veil ban, many of whom are well integrated into French society. The ban has provoked significant public debate regarding the potentially negative effects of laïcité.
France’s North African population continues to be affected by the legacy of colonialism, with its communities typically among the most marginalized in cities across the country. Against a broader backdrop of xenophobia and discrimination, North Africans have continued to experience high levels of poverty and social segregation. France Stratégie, the government’s economic strategy unit, estimated in 2015 that approximately 32 per cent of people with North African origin are unemployed and 30 per cent leave school without a diploma – roughly twice as many as those without immigrant parents. As a result, many of the inequalities of France’s colonial history persist to this day, passed down to younger generations through lack of opportunity and ongoing exclusion.
France suffered two major attacks carried out by religious extremists during 2015. On 7 January, an assault by armed gunmen on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, allegedly in reprisal for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, was followed by a series of other attacks that culminated in shootings at a Jewish supermarket in the city’s eastern suburbs on 9 January. With a total of 17 people killed, the attacks were among the worst security incidents the country had experienced in several decades. While some of the subsequent public discussion focused on the exclusion of France’s Muslim minority and the ghettoization of its immigrant population in marginalized suburban banlieues, the attacks also served to reinforce existing religious and ethnic divisions within French society. These issues were brought into even sharper relief in November 2015, when a series of coordinated suicide bombings and shootings targeting cafés, restaurants, a music venue and near the Stade de France stadium left 130 people dead and injured more than 350. In the wake of the attacks, France declared a state of emergency and imposed a range of provisions that greatly extended police powers to undertake searches, house arrests and other actions.
Amid heightened security, hate crimes against Muslims rose sharply in the following days, with 32 incidents recorded by France’s National Observatory of Islamophobia across the country within just one week. But while the attacks undoubtedly intensified negative attitudes towards the country’s Muslim minority, the community has long faced hostility and a widespread feeling that they are not fully part of French society. Popular intolerance towards Islam and broader concerns about France’s immigrant population, attitudes rooted in both ethnic and religious discrimination, have been reinforced by the rise of far-right political groups.
While this trend had been apparent for a while, reflected in the unprecedented number of seats won by the far-right Front National in local elections in 2014, the 2015 attacks contributed to a further surge in votes for the party during the December regional elections. Nevertheless, the fears expressed by the Front National around assimilation, diversity and multiculturalism have long had currency within mainstream French society, resulting at times in incidents of hate speech and hate crime targeted at dress and other markers. One incident, captured on film in the wake of the Paris attacks, involved a woman on a train in Paris insulting a Muslim man because she regarded his attire – a beard, a small cap and a qarmis, a long garment traditionally worn by Muslim men – as ‘illegal’ and ‘offensive’.
The widespread prevalence of such discriminatory attitudes has also led centrist politicians, journalists and others to frame their views increasingly in terms not of ethnicity but of religion. Anti-Muslim sentiments have led to France’s North African minority being deemed a threat to security and French values. This has enhanced even further the popularity of the Front National, whose current leader, Marine Le Pen, secured around 34 per cent of votes in the final round of the 2017 presidential election. Often ignored in this debate are France’s colonial past and the massive contributions that people of North African origin or descent continue to make to the country’s economy and culture.
Following a peak in 2015, the number of Islamophobic incidents has nevertheless decreased. The Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de L’Homme (CNCDH, National Consultative Commission on Human Rights) reported that the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015 more than tripled from the previous year to a total of 429 incidents. More recent data indicates that anti-Muslim hate crimes have since declined; for instance, the CNCDH recorded 121 incidents in 2017. However, Islamophobia remains a very significant issue. In fact, the nature of Islamophobic activities appears to be shifting in a very worrying way. The CNCDH has expressed concern that the number of anti-Muslim ‘actions’ – i.e. physical violence or damage to property – increased dramatically in 2017 by 88 per cent compared with 2016, whereas ‘threats’ – i.e. verbal abuse – decreased by 59 per cent. Organizations that combat Islamophobia also warn that there is significant under-reporting due to a lack of trust that the authorities will actually take action on victims’ behalf.
The number of reported Islamophobic incidents does not necessarily reflect the discrimination based on ethnic origin or immigrant background experienced specifically by North Africans in France. At the end of 2017, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency issued the second edition of its authoritative Minorities and Discrimination Survey (or MIDIS II). In the twelve months prior to being interviewed, 31 per cent of persons of North African origin or descent participating in the survey had experienced discrimination in France. Strikingly, that figure climbs to 43 per cent of second generation respondents, compared with 23 per cent of those surveyed who are first generation immigrants.
The French state has a long-established principle of laïcité, loosely signifying the separation of the state from religion. This has been reflected in various state policies, including the controversial ban on face coverings in public that came into force from April 2011 – a stipulation that prevents Muslim women from wearing a full-face veil, the burqa or niqab, in public. This was preceded by the 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols at school, meaning female Muslim students were unable to wear a headscarf or hijab in class. Though not explicitly targeted at any one religion, in practice French Muslims, particularly girls, were most affected by the ban. Though the 2011 ban has been justified by its supporters as a positive step to promote gender equality, arguing that many Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab are coerced into doing so by other members of their community, others have argued that it has served to further isolate women in that situation who may be pressured into not appearing in public as a result. Furthermore, critics have argued that it has contributed to a broader climate of discrimination for Muslim women who wear face coverings, whether through choice or coercion.
Updated September 2018
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