French Muslims, Government Grapple With Integration Pains
By Patrick Simon
Institut national d'études démographiques (INED)
August 1, 2003
France's longstanding traditions of secularism in the political sphere and
Roman Catholicism in religious life are being tested as the country tries to
integrate a growing Muslim population. The construction of mosques, the
creation of representative Islamic bodies, and the wearing of religious symbols
in schools are just a few of the issues that have sparked vigorous public
The rapid growth of Islam, now France's second-largest religion after
Catholicism, is behind much of the debate. Survey results published in Le Monde
in April 2003 revealed that 62 percent of all French say they are practicing
Roman Catholics, versus six percent who say they are Muslims. While Catholics
are still the overwhelming majority, the size of the group of people who call
themselves Muslims has tripled since 1994.
Immigrants from the former French colonies of Northern Africa and their
offspring comprise the vast majority of Muslims in France, far outnumbering
those from West Africa, Turkey, and the Indian Subcontinent. In all, it is
estimated that there are approximately five million such people, if everyone
originally from a primarily Muslim country and their French-born offspring are
Though the modern-day presence of Muslims in France can be traced back to the beginning of
the 20th century, no single organization has ever been recognized by the state
as the formal representative of the Muslim community. Various Islamic groups
handle their relations with the French government individually, making it
difficult for authorities to engage in dialogue with the Muslim community as a
Looking to bridge this gap, French ministers have since 1990 been attempting to
facilitate the creation of an Islamic body capable of representing all of the
country's Muslims. Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy finally succeeded
in this regard with the founding of the French Council for the Muslim Religion,
whose first elections were held in April. The results showed the strong
influence of the National Federation of Muslims of France (FNMF) and the Union
of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF). Members of these organizations are
considered radical in comparison with Muslims headed by the leader of the Paris
mosque, France's principal Muslim place of worship.
The stakes of such elections are high, for they have a direct impact on the
government-Muslim dialogue on the social and public practice of Islam, such as
the month-long Ramadan fasting holiday, the ritual slaughter of animals, the
pilgrimage to Mecca, the training of imams, the construction of mosques, and
the placement of religious counselors in prisons, hospitals, and public and
The government continues to state its willingness to incorporate into French
society a type of Islam that would be independent of its roots in any one
country of origin. For many years, it left the "handling" of Muslims to
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and more recently, to other African countries and
Turkey. The establishment of an "Islamic religion of France" has been delayed
by these organizational issues, contributing to the present failure to effectively
acknowledge Islam as France's second-largest religion.
A number of disputes have come to the forefront in recent years with regard to
the development of Islam's visibility. There are relatively few mosques
compared to the number of Muslims living in France; one count carried out this
year tallied only 1,554 mosques, places of worship, and prayer spaces. Most of
these spaces are in individual homes where there is little room to receive the
faithful. Despite this, many municipalities have refused to authorize the
construction of new places of worship. Moreover, there are very few schools of
the Islamic faith compared to Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish learning
Another sticking point is the slaughter of animals according to Muslim rites.
This practice raises disputes each year at the traditional sacrifices for the
Eid El Kebir holiday, which marks the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan. The custom
is for people of sufficient means to slaughter sheep and distribute the meat to
family, friends, and the poor. In the past, the demand for properly performed holiday sacrifices has far outstripped supply, leading to the establishment
of illegal slaughterhouses, at times even in private apartments. Such
arrangements have created frictions with neighbors over issues of hygiene and
culture. Regulations have gradually loosened up, making it possible to
reduce the number of illegal slaughterhouses, but there are still not enough
authorized facilities to handle the need.
These issues pale, however, in comparison with the controversy over the
headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women as a sign of their faith.
related article on Germany). The conflict
goes back to 1989, when three young girls were expelled from a high school for
wearing scarves on the grounds that the religious symbolism conflicted with
the secular environment of French schools.
Since then, the controversy has grown exponentially. The Conseil d'Etat,
France's highest judicial body, authorized the wearing of scarves at school in
1989, but this right has been challenged periodically. As recently as April,
Minister of Education Luc Ferry and the prime minister announced a law aimed at
reinforcing secularism in schools. In July, President Jacques Chirac launched a
commission on secularism to head off any changes to the law.
A number of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum are currently
advocating a headscarf ban and the expulsion of girls who refuse to comply.
This position is under heavy criticism from intellectuals and Muslim
organizations alike. These critics say such a move would be tantamount to
preventing Muslim girls from attending public school, since wearing the
headscarf is considered a religious obligation by many female followers of
Attempts to curb the wearing of headscarves are spreading in a climate of
hostility towards Islam, and some analysts feel the controversy is indirectly
fueling anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in French society. What is clear
from the dispute, and the others that characterize the "integration pains" of
Muslims, is that while Islam has a long way to go in its adaptation to French
society, the reverse is also true.
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