Islam in France: The French Way of Life Is in Danger
by Michel Gurfinkiel
Middle East Quarterly
March 1997, pp. 19-29
Michel Gurfinkiel is editor in chief of Valeurs Actuelles, France’s leading conservative weekly newsmagazine. A specialist in international affairs, he has recently written Israel: Geopolitique d’une Paix (Michalon, 1996) and Geopolitique de la Criminalite (La Documentation française/Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Securite Interieure, 1996).
American visitors to Paris or other major French cities often are amazed when they see how the multiethnic way of life there resembles that in the United States.
Some see this as positive: in a Newsweek cover story, John Leland and Marcus Mabry assert that a “new creative energy — in terms of art and music — is bursting out of the multiethnic suburbs” of France.1 Others are more pessimistic, pointing to La Haine (Hate), a movie about immigrant or minority teenagers in Marseilles that tells a story of street violence and confrontation with the police that brings the 1992 Los Angeles riots to mind.
But multiethnicity in France goes beyond that in the United States, for it includes a religious dimension in addition to racial and ethnic differences. If the most important minorities in the United States (the black and Hispanic) are overwhelmingly Christian, French minority groups are largely Muslim. American minority groups share many basic values with the rest of the country; in contrast, French minority groups tend to have alien values, to think of themselves as a new nation, and even to have hopes of superseding the present Judeo-Christian nation of France.
WILL FRANCE REMAIN FRENCH?
Nor is this Muslim aspiration a pipedream. Jean-Claude Chesnais, one of France’s leading demographers at the National Institute for the Study of Demographics (Ined), is very blunt:
Migration trends are to intensify over the coming thirty years… . All developed countries will be affected, including East Asia and the former communist countries. There will be an overall mingling of cultures and civilisations that may lead, as far as France is concerned, to the emergence of a predominantly African population and to rapid Islamization.”2
Today, France’s immigrant population amounts to 15 percent of the total population, with lower figures for the Muslim community: hardly a tidal wave. It is also true that France remains an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, with a Catholic baptism rate of 84 percent in 1990. In addition, France is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, nation-states in Europe, and it can claim one of the world’s great and most attractive cultures; these attributes have helped it absorb and thoroughly assimilate large numbers of immigrants during the past century or so, including Belgians and Germans, Italians and Spaniards, Poles and Portuguese, Jews from Eastern Europe and North Africa, Armenians, and West Indian blacks, plus Asians from Indochina, China, and India. Why should not the same pattern prevail throughout the twenty-first century as well?
Still, the prospect of the French’s converting en masse to Islam and France’s turning into an Afro-Mediterranean country is not to be dismissed. Mass conversion and ethnic transition are not rare in history. The Roman Empire, one the world’s most formidable and enduring polities, was transformed in the half-millennium between the first century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E., as ethnic Romans were replaced by neo-Romans of many ethnic or racial stocks and various parlances, from proto-Berber North Africans and Arabs to Slavs and Germans, not to speak of Greeks and Hellenized easterners. Simultaneously, while Christianity abruptly replaced the sophisticated pagan culture of Rome.
To assess the chances of the French’s converting en masse to Islam and France’s turning into an Afro-Mediterranean country is not to be dismissed.
To assess the chances of France’s Islamicization over the coming thirty to fifty years, we look at four factors: the high demographic rates of French Muslims, their aloofness from mainstream society, their increasing religious assertiveness, and the growing appeal of Islam to non-Muslims.
I. Demographic Disparity
As in the United States, there are no accurate population figures on religious affiliation in France, for French law prohibits a census along religious lines in almost all circumstances, even of foreigners.3 Polls and surveys do exist but vary widely in scope, methodology, and results.
The Ministry of Interior and Ined routinely speak of a Muslim population in France of 3 million. Sheikh Abbas, head of the Great Mosque in Paris, in 1987 spoke of twice as many — 6 million.4 Journalists usually adopt an estimate somewhere in the middle: for example, Philippe Bernard of Le Monde uses the figure of 3 to 4 million.5 The Catholic Church, a reliable source of information on religious trends in France, also estimates 4 million.6 A French-Arab journal published in Paris provides the following breakdown: 3.1 million Muslims of North African origin, 400,000 from the Middle East, 300,000 from Africa, 50,000 Asians, 50,000 converts of ethnic French origin, and 300,000 illegal immigrants from unknown countries.7 This brings the total to 4.2 million. One can state with reasonable certainty that the Muslim population of France numbers over 3 million (about 5 percent of the total French population) and quite probably over 4 million (6.6 percent).
Perhaps more important than exact numbers is the spectacular rate of growth since World War II. Muslims in France in 1945 numbered some 100,000 souls; fifty years later, the population has increased by thirty or forty times.8 It continues to grow at a rapid clip, through further immigration (illegal but until now poorly suppressed), natural increase (immigrant Muslim families retain a comparatively high birthrate), or conversion (either as the result of intermarriage or out of a personal religious quest).
If birthrate figures cannot be precisely computed, enough data exists to make educated estimates. Algerian women in France in 1981 had a fertility rate of 4.4 births per woman; in 1990, it had declined to 3.5 births. (Comparable figures for Moroccan women in France are 5.8 and 3.5; for Tunisian women, 5.1 and 4.2.) While declining, the birthrate of immigrant Muslims remains three to four times higher than that of non-Muslim French, which is estimated at 1.3 percent. There is no specific reason to believe that the Muslim rate will eventually parallel the non-Muslim one. It is noteworthy that while in 1981 Tunisian women in France had a slightly lower birthrate than their counterparts in Tunisia (5.1 against 5.2), nine years later it had grown higher (4.2 against 3.4). The reasons for this growth are not clear, but they could include the higher welfare payments in France or the relative ease of family planning, including the choice for a large family, in democratic France compared to semi-authoritarian Tunisia.9
In all, the 1992 fertility rate in France was 1.8 births per woman, a figure slightly above those of Germany (1.3), Italy (1.3), and Spain (1.2) but well beneath that of the United States (2.1).10 France’s demographic advantage over other European Union countries is due largely to its larger percentage of Muslims and their higher birthrate.
Extrapolating from these numbers, the low Muslim-population scenario (low immigration, diminishing birthrate, few conversoins) results in a 50 percent increase over twenty years; between 4.5 and 6 million Muslims in France by the year 2016, out of 60 million French, or 7 to 10 percent of the total population.11 The high-number scenario (rampant immigration, higher birthrate for Muslims than for non-Muslims, and a higher share of young people in the Muslim population than among non-Muslims) points to a 100 percent or even a 200 percent increase: 6 to 12 million Muslims by 2016, or 10 to 20 percent of the total population. Then there is the superhigh scenario, in which a rapidly expanding, young, and assertive Muslim community simply outpaces a declining, aging, and unsure non-Muslim community.
According to the interior ministry, two thirds of Muslims in France live in major urban areas: 38 percent in the Ile-de-France (Paris and its region), 13 percent in the Provence-C”te d’Azur (Marseilles and Nice, as well as the Riviera), 10 percent in Rh”ne-Alpes (Lyons and Grenoble), and 5 percent in Nord-Pas-de-Calais (around Lille). To get the full measure of Islam’s impact on French society, those figures must be translated into numbers and then related to the size of the local population: 1.37 million Muslims in Ile-de-France out of a total population of 11 million (10 percent); 471,000 Muslims in Provence-C”te d’Azur out of 4.3 million (11 percent); 363,000 in Rh”ne-Alpes out of 5.3 million (6.8 percent); and 181,000 in Nord-Pas-de-Calais out of 3.9 million (5 percent). The Muslim presence is much greater in key areas than the overall figures would suggest. Many cities or neighborhoods in France have turned into all-Muslim territories.
The birthrate of Muslims being three to four times higher than that of non-Muslims, the proportion of children, teenagers, and young adults in urban France is not 5-11 percent but a very impressive 33 percent or so.
II. Outside the Mainstream
Are Muslims in France subject to racism or discrimination? In a 1996 CSA poll, 56 percent of foreigners living on French soil and 61 percent of naturalized French citizens deemed racism “a threat.” Indigenous French citizens do not share this concern: only 27 percent of them mentioned racism as a major threat; they found unemployment, poverty, and AIDS far more worrisome (74, 53, and 50 percent, respectively). Despite this difference of view, a wide consensus exists that North African Muslims are the main victims of racist behavior: over two-thirds of all French citizens agree about that.12
The picture is not all negative. A 1995 Louis Harris poll for Valeurs Actuelles shows an astounding 71 percent of all Muslims living in France, foreigners and citizens alike, feel “welcomed” by the French.13 Many French Muslims are middle class or even upper class. A growing Muslim presence is felt in the liberal and learned professions, particularly medicine (Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Great Mosque in Paris, is a respected physician). Some Muslims have made their way well into France’s ruling elite, the Grands Corps de l’Etat and the Conseil d’Etat. Djamal Larfaoui, an Algerian-born French Muslim, was sousprefet (local governor) of Nanterre, a vibrant and densely populated city in the Paris area, until his sudden death in December 1996; he was granted a state funeral. Others are senior executives in major corporations, such as Yazid Sabegh, chairman of the high-technology Campagnie des Signaux, or Lofti Belhacine, founder of the leisure and vacation company Aquarius and the airline company Air Liberte. This upper crust of French Islam mixes freely with non-Muslims and does not stick to its own neighborhoods. Indeed, no case of housing discrimination against upper- or middle-class Muslims has ever been reported.
Many working-class Muslims also follow this pattern and mingle with non-Muslims; that was particularly the case with immigrants who came in the 1950s and 1960s. Arriving as single men, they frequently intermarried with non-Muslim women, French-born or immigrant, and were quite easily absorbed into mainstream society. Isabelle Adjani, the famed actress, is the daughter of an immigrant Algerian Muslim father and an immigrant German Catholic mother. Ali Magoudi, a well-known psychoanalyst, was born to an immigrant Algerian Muslim father and an immigrant Polish Catholic mother.
But a very high proportion of French Muslims are in the underclass, that segment of the population that relies not so much on education and work as on welfare and predatory activities. Most members of this underclass tend to be Muslims who arrived in France as whole families, including Harkis14 and post-1974 immigrants. Their condition is not that different from the underclass of blacks and Hispanics in the United States, though there is one striking geographic difference: the American underclass concentrates in the inner cities, while the French is found in the new and dull public-housing neighborhoods that mushroomed at the cities’ peripheries. Suburb and suburbanite have precisely the opposite meaning in France from what they have in North America.
According to Lucienne Bui-Trong, the officer in charge of the Towns and Suburbs Department at the Renseignements generaux (general intelligence) of the French police, no less than one thousand Muslim neighborhoods are under monitoring throughout France, which means that the National Police keeps more personnel there to prevent public disorder. Violence and crime are rampant in those areas. Seven hundred Muslim neighborhoods are listed as “violent”; four hundred are listed as “very violent,” meaning not just that organized crime and firearms are present but that residents have a systematic strategy to keep the police out. The Ile-de-France has 226 violent neighborhoods, Provence-C”te d’Azur has 89, Rh”ne-Alpes 62, and Rh”ne-Pas-de-Calais 61.15.
Unemployment is rife in these suburbs, with 470,000 registered unemployed adults in 1993, or roughly one third of the total adult manpower.16 Violence ranges from theft and looting of cars (58 percent of all offenses) and street fighting to assault on teachers and civil servants (10 percent). Perhaps most distressing are the high numbers of assaults or rebellions against the police (19 percent).17 Periodic outbursts of large-scale unrest or rioting sometimes occur. The first major riots occurred at Vaulx-en-Velin, a Lyons suburb, in 1990; since then, further riots have taken place in the Paris suburbs. In addition, riots have even taken place at the seaside or mountain resort sites where suburbanite youngsters are sometimes placed for government-sponsored vacations.
As the notion of a government-sponsored vacation suggests, French suburbs have hardly been neglected by the authorities. Since the riot there in 1990, Vaulx-en-Velin has benefited from a $50 million program financed by the central government since 1990: each of the town’s 45,000 inhabitants has had $1,000 spent on him for parks, sport facilities, underground parking lots, public libraries, and kindergartens. The money even goes for museums, including France’s most modern planetarium and a Permanent Exhibition Center for Minorities. At the national level, $3 billion has been earmarked in French fiscal year 1995 for “urban policies” (a euphemism for ghetto rehabilitation).18
And yet, the government has little to show for its expenditures: crime and unrest are both sharply on the rise at Vaulx-en-Velin and everywhere else. The basic assumption underlying this welfare policy — that unrest is the result of poverty and a shabby urban environment — would seem to be proven wrong.
In fact, as many sociologists — including Muslim ones — acknowledge, an almost symbiotic relationship exists in the ghettoes between the underclass way of life and ethnic/religious separatism. Conservative Muslims see the ghettoes as a way to benefit from immigrating to France without having to assimilate into French society. Some level of violence has the advantage of ensuring separation from the outside world and can be used as a bargaining tool with the authorities to get more de facto autonomy — meaning that Muslim enclaves are ruled only by Muslims according to Islamic law and mores — as well as to obtain more funding. It also serves as a social control tool against liberal-minded Muslim individuals, for conservative Muslim leaders can easier exert pressure on liberal-minded Muslims — for instance to compel females to don the veil — within the context of the ghettos’ violence.
III. Increasing Religious Assertiveness
Just how Islamic are French Muslims, how religious and how orthodox? The breakdown of Muslim religious practice according to gender, age, ethnicity, and geographic origin is worth noting. Muslim men are less religious than Muslim women (26 percent of whom pray at least five times a year), in large part due to very low attendance among the main male group, French-born young males of Algerian origin (under 6 percent). Turks — many really Kurds from Southeast Anatolia — are quite religious (36 percent), followed by Moroccans (27 percent).19
Nowadays, one thousand mosques are said to operate in France, almost all of them built or organized during the past thirty years. Eight of them, including the Great Mosque in Paris, are “cathedral mosques,” large monumental buildings with a capacity of more than a thousand worshippers. A further hundred mosques are quite large structures, with a capacity of several hundred worshippers. The rest are small, accommodating from thirty to one hundred worshippers — not entire buildings, but simple rooms at factories or in the basement of public housing units.20
Though the demand for mosques is growing, attendance is not high: Ined reports that just 23 percent of Muslims in France join public prayer at least five times a year. Still, this is slightly higher than Catholic attendance at seasonal high services (Christmas, Easter, All Saints Day), which is 20 percent. But is regular mosque attendance the true hallmark of Islamic religious practice? Perhaps more significant is that some exceptional holidays, such `Id al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), draw thousands of worshippers not just into the mosques but outside as well.
In principle, public funding is not available for mosque building because of the 1905 Law of Separation of Churches and State, according to which the French Republic “neither recognizes nor funds” any religious organization. Various ways have been devised, however, to circumvent these laws, to the point that any Islamic congregation with a sound building project can count on extensive public help, either in cash or credit. Most mosque projects include not just the house of worship but also baths, clinics, and bookshops. The demand for Islamic schools is also growing: according to the 1995 Louis Harris poll, 76 percent of all Muslims in France would like to send their children not to secular schools but to Islamic schools run under the benign supervision of the state and with its financial help, the same arrangement that Catholic and Jewish schools have.21 The same applies to ritually acceptable (hallal) food: the government has no choice but to extend to Muslims the same slaughtering and processing privileges customarily granted to Jews. As for Ramadan observance, also on the increase, the government takes it into account in the case of Muslim civil servants.
Several facts point to a gradual shift among French Muslims toward increased identification with religion and a more rigorous practice of the faith. Women and teenage girls are wearing the Islamic veil, even in public schools. Immigrant groups with a secular agenda, like Arezki Dahmani’s France Plus (a group concerned with civil liberties and civic rights for North African immigrants, aiming at organizing the North African vote to support the conservative parties), associate with Islamists to retain their constituency. Mosques or other institutions run by mystical brotherhoods (tariqat) from distant Egypt, Turkey, or Pakistan tend to take over “immigrant mosques” run by North African imams closely associated with their home governments.
There is no central religious organization of Islam in France; each local congregation is registered as a separate entity under the 1901 law on nonprofit organizations. Several attempts have been made in recent years to place Muslims under the authority of a national Islamic federation,22 modeled somewhat on the Jewish Consistoire. All these efforts failed, in part because they sought to absorb French Muslims in mainstream French society. The French government hopes to exert more control over French Islam through an established Islamic “church,” while Muslim groups tend to see this as a way for Islam to be recognized as an autonomous group within the French body politic. Fundamentalist leaders state this aim unabashedly, moderate leaders do so in a more subtle and astute way; all claim full adherence to orthodox Islamic laws and teachings regarding relations with non-Muslim powers.
In this context, it is worth quoting Dalil Boubakeur, the French-born and thoroughly gallicized head of the Great Mosque and the driving force behind the Representative Council of French Muslims (CRMF). In January 1995, he presented a Platform for Islamic Worship in France (Charte du culte musulman en France) to Minister of the Interior Charles Pasqua, a document (and its elaborate commentary, also by Boubakeur) subsequently accepted as a French-Islamic manifesto of sorts. Article 32 asserts:
The Muslims of France, in close association with other believers, intend to develop a concept of secularism that establishes harmonious relations between the religions and the state.23
Now, this is not secularism as the French have understood it since 1905 — the complete separation of church and state — but a situation reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire under the Tanzimat regime, in which all religions enjoy public recognition and varying degrees of autonomy within the state. The word “concord” refers to the old Catholic practice of concordats, full-fledged bilateral treaties between the Vatican and sovereign powers delineating the powers and privileges of the church and state. Boubakeur seems to be saying that the French Republic should write a treaty with Islam regarding the Muslim community in France.
Boubakeur makes clear in his commentary that “according to the Shari`a [Islamic sacred law], a non-Muslim country is not to be seen any more as Dar al-Harb [house of war] but rather as Dar al-`Ahd [house of covenant]”; and “the Platform is an expression of such a covenant.”24 Fully aware of the legal or constitutional difficulties implied in such a statute of covenant, the platform refers to a de facto revision of the 1905 law of separation: “Islam did not emerge as one of the major faiths of France before the second half of the twentieth century, long after the 1905 law. … Muslims look forward to a friendly interpretation of the law … enabling them to join harmoniously into the French society and the French state.”25
IV. Islam’s Appeal to Non-Muslims
Some fifty thousand French Muslims are said to be converts of non-Muslim origin. Their numbers include well-known intellectuals and artists, including Maurice Bejart, the world-famous choreographer who has settled for a low-profile brand of Sufism; and Roger Garaudy, a former communist philosopher who is leader of the Spain-based International Islamic Center. Quite a few converts have achieved positions of leadership within Islamic circles: Daniel-Youssouf Leclerc, the leader of the strictly orthodox Sunni group Integrite and the only European-born member of the World Islamic League’s High Council; Ali-Didier Bourg, the founder of the Islamic University in Paris (a part-time seminary rather than a university but still very influential); and Jacques-Yacoub Roty, who was rumored in the early 1990s to be the next head of the Great Mosque.
Formal conversion is only the most visible manifestation of a much wider move toward Islam. For one, Islam (unlike Judaism or Catholicism) does not insist on conversion in a mixed marriage but makes do with the children’s being raised as Muslims. And they are; a rather significant and growing proportion of Muslim children in France were born of non-Muslim mothers or even of non-Muslim fathers.
Secondly, interest in Islam has become politically correct in France, notwithstanding a very real concern about fundamentalist Islam. In part, this reflects a taste for the religiously exotic that has been apparent in European and American culture for well over a century. But today it fits into a new paradigm: intellectuals, academics, even priests are not supposed to see Islam as something worthy and alien but as part of a common heritage. In great measure, Islam has become a second Judaism in France: another non-Christian faith and culture with intimate relevance for the Christian world.
This new approach gains in importance by virtue of its surprising endorsement by the Catholic Church. As Alain Besancon, a leading Catholic intellectual, has noted, “It is syncretism in the guise of oecumenism.” To posit the Qur’an as a sacred book “rooted in Biblical Revelation,” as do many contemporary Catholic authors or preachers, or even as a late “Biblical book” runs not just against Catholic theology (which knows only of the canonical Bible) but aligns the church with the Islamic theological notion according to which Qur’anic revelation includes all previous revelations. As Besancon puts it, the Christian ministry is gradually shifting to a crypto-Islamic ministry: “De propaganda fide islamica.”26 In contrast, it bears noting, Muslims are not in the least reciprocating, not retreating from their own indictment of the Torah and the Injil (Christian Revelation) as adulterated or falsified versions of God’s word.
Why has the church succumbed to such syncretist trends? Besancon draws a telling parallel with an earlier infatuation, that with Marxism. Christianity may be so weak in contemporary France (and probably throughout much of Europe) that it must to look to other religions, either the apocalyptic church of Revolution or para-biblical Islam, to rejuvenate and survive. Indeed, the Catholic Church is far weaker in France today then it was in the heyday of communism in the years after World War II.
Observant Catholics (Catholiques pratiquants), a quarter of the French population in 1950, well-entrenched, and highly visible, have dwindled into a remnant (less than 5 percent in 1995). Moreover, the substance of Catholic observance has been so modified that to be fully observant today equals the lukewarm religiosity of yesteryear. Observant Catholics once would go to church on Sunday to attend services in Latin, send their children to Catholic schools or Catholic youth organizations, vote for Catholic parties, support Catholic unions. They insisted on strict sexual behavior and severely opposed divorce. Their families would be two to three times larger than the national average. Almost none of this is found today: church-going is marginal, services are in French, Catholic schools hardly differ from others, Catholic political parties or unions have been secularized, Catholic sexual mores are like everyone else’s, large families are rare, and divorce is rampant.
The decline of the Catholic clergy is even more dramatic: from 200,000 priests, monks, and nuns in the 1950s, many of them young, to less than 100,000 today, most of them over sixty-five. Clerical scarcity has in turn led to a growing involvement of less educated laymen in the ministry, plus heavy recourse to foreign clerics, especially from the Third World. Black African priests can be seen today throughout the country, even in rural areas of France; a black Zairian priest held mass for President Jacques Chirac in mid-1996. Female religious communities are, if anything, even more foreign: a substantial number of French nuns under thirty are of African or Asian origin.
A declining church seems to take comfort in the assertiveness of other faiths. French Catholics have over the years sought inspiration not just from Islam but from a wide range of non-Catholic religions: the study of Judaism, both Biblical and post-Biblical, is encouraged, as well as the imitation of Jewish ritual; Protestant revivalism has been cloned into the church as “Pentecostal,” “charismatic,” or Renouveau (“Renewal”) Catholicism; monasteries are remodeled after their Hindu or Buddhist equivalents; yoga and Oriental meditation are frequently fusioned with Christian prayer and other spiritual exercises. But Islam as a role model is growing, for it offers the best and closest example of a “living religion”: a religion that appears quite close to Christianity in some terminology, that serves the masses and the elites alike, and whose adherents really believe in God and His law.
That said, a growing number of Catholic leaders have expressed concern and dismay about the rise of Islam in France and the church’s pro-Islamic tendency. Archbishop Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, the chief Catholic authority of France, has publicly opposed the establishment of a state-supported central Islamic organization:
It is not the job of the French government to set up a French-flavored Islam. One should not mistake the twentieth century for the Age of Louis XIV or Napoleon, when worship could be regulated by decree. There is no other alternative but to enforce the law of the Republic in a wise and gentle way, and to wait for some thirty years or two generations, until Muslims with French citizenship will regard themselves and be regarded as French people of the Islamic faith.27
Archbishop Lustiger — himself a converted Jew — evidently takes seriously the potential dangers involved in the combination of growing Muslim demographics, growing Islamic assertiveness and declining Catholic morale. His strategy to check Islam’s growth is apparently a strict enforcement of laicite, the separation of church and state, while rebuilding Catholicism from within; for example, he has despaired of the standard Catholic seminaries and set up parallel, more conservative training colleges for the clergy.
As Besancon points out, “Muslims already outnumber observant Catholics” in France,28 and this trend seems likely to continue. Why should the average French of Catholic origin not forsake a dying African-ministered religion for an expanding, living religion that is anyway described as Christianity’s younger sister?
Other factors may also come into play. We note two briefly: the sharp decline in the French nation-state and the growing power of Muslim voters.
Decline in the French nation-state. It was one thing for France to absorb large numbers of Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles, Jews, Armenians, and Asians29 into a highly centralized, well-managed, and fully sovereign state, with a unified school system, a strong police, and compulsory military service for all male youth, as was the case until the 1960s. It is another thing altogether to absorb yet larger numbers of Arabs, Berbers, Turks, and black Africans into a much weaker state, with many powers devolved to the local authorities, a less powerful police, a dismembered school system, no draft, and the prospect of merging into the European Union.
Corsica, the birthplace of Emperor Napoleon and of untold numbers of French soldiers and civil servants, once a peaceful island departement off the Riviera, has over the past twenty years gradually slid into anarchy, terrorism, and then into separatism, all without eliciting a credible response from the national government. This precedent cannot be lost on Muslim activists.
At the same time, sovereign attributes — money issuance, border control, and much else — are being transferred from the French state to the European Union: radical French Muslims may wonder why they should come to terms with the national government in Paris rather than the supranational authority in Brussels.
The Muslim vote. The routine process of French politics may accelerate Islamization. Almost 50 percent of Muslims living in France today are French citizens and eventually nearly all of them will become French citizens. France has an extremely generous naturalization policy, one that permits all legal residents to apply for citizenship after five years in France and every child born on French soil to apply for citizenship, even if his parents are in the country illegally. (In this, it is very like the United States and very unlike Germany, which rarely bestows full citizenship to resident foreigners, even those born in Germany.)
In the longer term, as Muslims become citizens, their vote will be as crucial in many elections as the observant Catholic vote used to be; to win it may mean having to woo it, notably by allowing for further immigration and the consolidation of Islam in French society. Along these lines, one might also wonder whether Jacques Chirac’s pronouncements in late 1996 strongly favoring an independent Palestinian state and the lifting of the embargo against Iraq were not intended to garner the Muslim vote in France.
In sum, a growing proportion of non-Muslim French find the prospect of Islamization less shocking than would have their more patriotic-minded forefathers. On the other hand, the scope of the immigration and Islamization process may bring about a backlash. According to a December 1995 survey carried out by CSA and published in La Vie, a liberal Catholic weekly, 70 percent of the French are “afraid of religious fundamentalism” and a further 66 percent think that “fundamentalism is more prevalent in some religions than in others.” As even La Vie’s editors had to recognize, perhaps reluctantly, the issue here is not fundamentalism as such but Islam, both fundamentalist and moderate: “The French do believe today in a specific political-religious threat. And Islam, quite probably, is what first comes to their minds.”30 Concern about Islamization is an important element in the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-Right party, the National Front, but is much broader in scope and has compelled the mainstream parties to echo portions of Le Pen’s program (he calls for the deportation of all aliens, they call for a tightening of the very liberal immigration or naturalization laws).
Every community has the right to uphold and protect its way of life, so long as minorities’ rights are protected as well. Not so long ago, this consideration applied primarily to colonial areas threatened by the industrial West. Arguably, it applies to Western industrial nations as well, should they be threatened by mass immigration. In the case at hand, the main point is not whether mosques may be built or if hallal food may be distributed; but whether polygamy is to be tolerated and the police to operate in Muslim neighborhoods. In other words, Islam ought to adapt to the traditional French way of life, with its emphasis on individual freedom and secularism, rather than the reverse.
The current debate about immigration in America is much more about ethnicity and language than about religion. Still, many lessons may be drawn from the case of France.
Muslim Immigration to France
Most Muslims living in France are either North African immigrants or their offspring. Their presence in France results directly from French colonial rule over the three Maghreb countries (Algeria from 1830 to 1962, Tunisia 1881-1956, and Morocco 1912-1956).
Although a few Muslim subjects immigrated to France even before 1914, substantial numbers came only with the Great War. Three hundred thousand North Africans were drafted, two-thirds as soldiers in various units of colonial troops (Chasseurs indigènes, Infanterie de Marine, Tirailleurs Sénégalais, Tirailleurs Algériens, Tirailleurs Marocains, Spahis) and one-third as workers in the armament industry. Many were killed or died of disease, others were forcibly sent home after 1918, but more than eighty thousand stayed in France. Their presence won symbolic recognition in 1920, when parliament passed a law funding a Great Mosque in Paris (a law that, incidentally, directly contradicted the 1905 law prohibiting public funding for religious organizations).
In 1936, the Socialist-led government of Léon Blum lifted all limitations to travel and residence for North African Muslims, leading to an influx of immigrants from there. World War II repeated the Great War’s pattern, especially after the Allied powers took North Africa in 1942; some one hundred thousand Muslims were drafted into the Free French Army in Italy, many of whom ended up in France. Right after the war, Algerian Muslims arrived to take industrial jobs. In 1962, when Algeria, the oldest and the largest territory of French North Africa, achieved independence, France had a Muslim population of 400,000.
In less than ten years that number doubled. First came the Harkis, or the Français-Musulmans of Algeria, 250,000 draftees in a Muslim auxiliary force who served in the colonial war against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) from 1954 to 1962. Most of those unfortunate loyalists were simply left behind in 1962, a deliberate and dreadful decision that meant torture and death for them at the hand of the winners. Some 20,000, however, were transferred to France, along with their families: almost overnight, French Islam acquired a new community of 75,000 souls. Housed in distant rural villages, secluded both from the mainstream Muslim immigrants and the French but legally deemed to be full-range French citizens, the Harkis doubled their numbers by the end of the decade.
Secondly, some former FLN fighters, either Berber-speakers from the Kabyles or disenchanted members of the new elite, were also allowed to settle in France as (most ironically) “repatriated citizens.” In 1967 alone, no less than 127,000 Algerian Muslims came to France to stay permanently. Clearcut provisions of citizenship and travel were not defined until 1968.
Thirdly, in 1962-1974, with government approval and under government supervision, a booming French industry hired half a million migrant workers (travailleurs immigrés), chiefly from Algeria and Morocco but also from Tunisia. Almost to a man, they stayed in France. French corporations saw this economic immigration as a tool to keep industrial wages low; the French government used it as a bargaining chip in relations with the North African states, particularly oil-rich Algeria. More emigrants to France brought them two advantages: less pressure in an already depressed employment market and a sustained flow of remittances in hard currency.
By 1973, the total North African population of France in all probability had exceeded one million. When Valery Giscard d’Estaing became president of the republic in May 1974, right after the Yom Kippur War and the oil shock, he was quite concerned about this number. He earnestly tried to reverse the trend, first by formally putting an end to the economic immigration policy, then by initiating a policy to repatriate (or “reemigrate”) the migrant workers from North Africa. He failed miserably in both efforts, however, for the utter ideological incorrectness of these policies, in terms of both domestic politics and foreign policy, required so many qualifications that the entire scheme was rendered unworkable. For instance, the measures of July 3, 1974, were articulated in such as way as to infringe neither on human rights nor family rights: however unwelcome they were, migrants actually received new subsidies for housing, welfare, and education. They also won permission to bring in their relatives — even polygamous wives.
The efforts of Giscard d’Estaing brought about another dramatic increase in Muslim population, so that by 1981, when François Mitterrand became president, some 2 million North African Muslims lived in France. For the most part, they were either French citizens themselves or the parents of French citizens. In retrospect, French Islam reached a critical mass at this time, becoming a permanent element of French national life.
The Muslim numbers continued to grow during Mitterrand’s presidency, 1981-1995. Some attempts were made to curb illegal immigration more effectively, but by then the Socialists and Conservatives feared that too much posturing on this issue would further fuel the rise of the far Right, namely Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. Immigration from Morocco and Tunisia stabilized or dropped, as citizens of these countries increasingly went to other European countries (especially Spain, Italy, and Belgium). In contrast, immigration from Algeria to France increased with the economic and political difficulties of that country. Immigration, legal and not, from other Muslim countries also increased, particularly from the former Senegal, Mali, the Comoros, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Natural increase was more important than immigration, however, for “reunited” families now outnumbered single males.
1 Newsweek (Atlantic Edition), Feb. 26, 1996.
2 Interview with Jean-Claude Chesnais, Valeurs Actuelles, Oct. 6, 1996. Similar anxieties are voiced by Jean-Claude Barreau, a former government official in charge of immigration and the author of books on Islam and the Middle East, in La France va-t-elle disparatre? (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1997).
3 The German system of state-sponsored churches remains in effect in the three departements of the former Alsace-Lorraine (Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin, and Moselle) but it provides religious statistics only for the pre-1918 “established” faiths, i.e., Christianity and Judaism; Muslims and other post-1918 communities are not counted.
4 Valeurs Actuelles, Sept. 1987.
5 Philippe Bernard, “M. Pasqua reconnait un Conseil representatif des musulmans,”Le Monde, Jan. 12, 1995.
6 “L’Eglise catholique de France, sa mission, ses organisations,” LES. [TB: something wrong here?]
7 Arabies, Oct. 1996.
8 Rene Gallissot, “Le mixte franco-algerien,” in Les Temps Modernes devoted to L’Immigration maghrebine en France, vol. 40, nos. 2-3-4, Mar.-May 1984.
9 Y. Courbage, “Demographic Transition in the Maghreb Peoples of North Africa and among the Emigrant Community,” in Peter Ludlow, ed., Europe and the Mediterranean (London: Brassey’s, 1994).
11 The World Bank Atlas (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1995).
12 Nathan Keyfitz and Wilhelm Flieger, World Population Growth and Aging (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 262, project 60 million as the population of France in 2020.
13 Le Nouvel Observateur, Oct. 17, 1996.
14 Harkis were Algerian Muslims loyal to French rule in Algeria who, to avoid persecution by the new Algerian government in 1962, precipitously had to flee their homeland; their numbers in France then numbered some 75,000. Today, Harkis and their descendents number about 500,000.
15 Jean-Marc Leclerc, “Ces banlieues du non-droit,” Valeurs Actuelles, Mar. 4, 1995.
According to the French Ministry of Interior and Ined, quoted in Liberation, Sept. 20, 1995. See also Hubert de Beaufort and Jacques de Zelicourt, Pourquoi la crise et comment en sortir (Paris: Mame, 1993), an innovative book with additional figures about illegal immigration.
Leclerc, “Ces banlieues.”
Eric Branca, “Ramener l’Etat dans les cites” (an interview with Eric Raoult, Minister of Social Integration), Valeurs Actuelles, Oct. 14, 1995.
Ined and Ministry of Interior, quoted in Liberation, Sept. 20, 1995.
Valeurs Actuelles, Mar. 4, 1995.
Notably the Council for the Future of Islam in France (Corif), the National Coordination of French Muslims (CNMF), the Representative Council of French Muslims (CRMF), and the Muslim High Council of France (HCMF), all created under the aegis of the minister of interior. The first one under Pierre Joxe, a Socialist, in 1990, the second and the third under Charles Pasqua, a Conservative, between 1993 and 1995, and the fourth one in 1996 under Jean-Louis Debre, a Conservative too. The National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF), founded in 1985, is largely a Moroccan lobby, while the slightly older Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), founded in 1983, is seen as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood.
In French: “Les Musulmans de France, en communion avec les autres croyants, entendent oeuvrer au developpement d’une expression de la lacite qui instaurerait entre les religions et l’Etat une situation de concorde.” Charte du Culte musulman en France, Presentation et commentaires du Dr Dalil Boubakeur (Monaco: La Mosquee de Paris/Editions du Rocher, 1995), p. 57.
Ibid, p. 34.
Ibid, p. 56.
Alain Besancon, Trois Tentations dans l’Eglise (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1996), p. 201.
Franois Devinat, “Ce n’est pas … l’Etat de creer un islam francais” (interview with Archbishop Jean-Marie Lustiger), Liberation, Nov. 14, 1995.
Besancon, Trois Tentations, p. 211.
Meaning some 400,000 Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Chinese from China, Hong-Kong, and Macao, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Tahiti, Indians from India, French citizens of Indian origin from the former French dependencies in India, ethnic Indians from Indian Ocean countries, Sri Lankese, and even some Japanese and Koreans.