Where next for France’s complex relationship with Islam?
France must prove that Islam is fully compatible with the fundamental values of the republic or it risks letting fear and distrust overwhelm society
Islam is the second religion in France, after Christianity. There are an estimated 5 to 6 million French citizens of Muslim culture, about a third of whom declare themselves to be practicing Muslims. Contrary to what the Front National would have us believe, their presence is not the result of a forceful invasion. It is very simply the result of our history. A tumultuous history, made of lights and shadows.
From the cultural celebrations of French Orientalism to French imperialism, and from the bloody battles of independence to the successes and failures of post-colonial immigration and integration, our relationship with Islam and the Muslim culture has been long, complex and possibly more intense than for any other western country.
France has known other waves of immigration, even in our recent history. But before the 1950s, those immigrants came mostly from Europe, and they were overwhelmingly Christians. Their integration was also a complex process, but their children and grandchildren, not being part of a visible minority, have not suffered the same discrimination as their parents and grandparents, and have therefore blended quite seamlessly into French society, without anyone demanding that they forget where they or their ancestors came from.
Such is not the case for immigrants who came to France from our former colonies in black Africa and the Maghreb, in the aftermath of decolonisation and as a result of organised efforts to bring low-wage workers to France, especially in the 1960s. This immigration wave has, to this day, put our model of integration to the test. The children and grandchildren of those immigrants are part of a visible minority, and are mostly of Muslim culture, whether they are actually religious or not. Too often, they are presumed foreign, and are expected to prove again and again how French they are, whatever that means in the minds of those who make such demands.
Racist discrimination has considerably decreased over the past decades, but it does still exist. A recent report on discrimination around access to employment shows that, after sexism, racism is the biggest obstacle in access to jobs, whatever the level of academic and professional qualifications a person holds. This situation creates negative reactions on the part of those French citizens who do not feel fully welcome in the French nation because of their ethnicity or presumed religion, with the risk of some of them then retreating into segregated communities, at odds with our model of integration.
The question of Islam and its compatibility with the French republic compounds discrimination based on straight up racism. Long before the rise of jihadist terrorism, first in the early 1990s in the wake of the GIA upheaval in Algeria, and more recently with al-Qaida then Isis, France had cultivated a tumultuous relationship with Islam and French Muslims.
During the times of the colonies in the 19th century, Muslims in the French provinces of Maghreb were literally considered second-class citizens. The advent of separation of church and state, with the law on laïcité (French secularity) in 1905, did not change that situation.
Now, we are faced with a major challenge: proving that Islam is fully compatible with the fundamental values of the French republic, including laïcité, and equality between men and women. The conflict between many different versions of Islam, including its incursion into terrorism, and the rise of identity politics (as is also the case in many European countries and in the United States) further complicates the issue.
For its own sake, France must take that challenge head on, or risk letting fear and distrust overwhelm our society. For Europe’s sake too, France must succeed, because we are the European country with the largest percentage of the population who are of Muslim culture. We have a responsibility to show Europe, and indeed the world, that it is possible for a western country to welcome Islam peacefully.
There are no easy solutions. But France must start with standing our ground on our definition of laïcité: the state must be religiously neutral to guarantee freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as long as it does not interfere with public order or the freedom of others; all religions in France must accept that in our republic, man’s law always prevails over God’s law.
The second part of the equation is to fully acknowledge our complex history with Islam and with what Muslim cultures have brought to French culture over the centuries. This can be accomplished through education and cultural policy. This is the best way for the French government to help Islam in France find its own way to religious practice within the values of the republic.
Only then can we start building a new path for all French citizens to feel, be treated and respected as full citizens, whatever their faith or lack thereof.
This work is supported by the Barrow Cadbury Fund. Its migration programme aims to promote an immigration system that is fair to both migrants and established residents and a policy and public debate on migration and integration that is based on shared values as well as evidence.
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