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Islam is the second religion in France by number of worshippers, totaling about 6% of the national population. The presence of Muslims in France is attested as soon as the 8th century when Muslims conquered Spain and pushed northward, but Islam then totally disappeared from France until the 20th century. After WWII, the number of Muslims in France surged with the arrival of an increasing foreign labor force from the Maghreb. Immigrants came from nations which maintained strong ties with French language and culture (Francophonie) because of the legacy of past colonization. Immigrants, lured by economic opportunities, supplied a pool of manpower for the labor-intensive economy which prevailed at this time. They have chosen to settle in France and to embrace citizenship, as they were granted family reunification. Muslims contributed noticeably to the economic expansion of France during that time of "The Glorious Thirty". They were blue-collar workers in manufacturing plants or construction. A recent phenomena is conversion, with around 50,000–100,000.[1][1]



Due to a law dating from 1872[citation needed], the French Republic prohibits performing census by making distinction between its citizens regarding their race or their beliefs. Nevertheless, the United States Department of State claimed that 10% was a large estimate,[2] while two 2007 polls estimated it at about 3% of the total population.[3] The CIA World Factbook places it at 5-10%.[4] In 2000, the French Ministry of the Interior estimated the number of Muslims to 4.1 million plus about 40,000 converts.

Michèle Tribalat (fr), a researcher at INED, showed that an acceptance of 5 to 6 million Muslims in France was roughly overestimated. According to the census filling, there were 3.7 million people of "possible Muslim faith" in France (6.3% of the total population of Metropolitan France in 1999)[5]. These 3.7 million people whose ancestry is from countries where Islam is the dominant faith may or may not be observant Muslims themselves.

Nationalist and right-wing parties have often opposed the Islamisation of France as they feel it endangers what they believe to be core values of French and European civilization.

An Interior ministry source in l'Islam dans la République (Haut Conseil à l'intégration, Nov. 2000, p. 26) published the following estimated distribution of Muslims by affiliated countries:

Algeria 1,550,000
Morocco 1,000,000
Tunisia 350,000
Turkey 315,000
Sub-Saharan Africa 250,000
Middle East 100,000
Asians 100,000 (mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh)
Converts 50,000–100,000
illegal immigrants or awaiting regularisation 350,000
Other 100,000
Total 4,155,000

These numbers include people of Muslim affiliation who are not actually observant Muslims. Among Muslims, 36% described themselves as "observant believers", and 20% claimed to go regularly to the mosque for the Friday service.[6] 70% said they "observe Ramadan". This would amount to a number of roughly 1.5 million French Muslims who are "observant believers", another 1.5 million who identify with Islam enough to observe Ramadan, and 1 million citizens of "(Islam observing lineage) Muslim extraction" but with no strong religious or cultural ties to Islam. The number of people of Islam observing lineage who are practicing Roman Catholics is negligible.

Another estimate is the 2004 study, again by Michèle Tribalat of INED, this time based on anonymous questionnaires that were given to 380, 481 people alongside the 1999 population census conducted by INSEE. In these questionnaires, people were asked the origin of their parents and grandparents. As a result, 3.7 million people in France are likely to be from Muslim families, that is either they, their parents or grandparents come from a predominantly Muslim country making them "possibly" Muslim. More than 14 million French people (23% of the total population) have at least one parent from a foreign country, mostly from other European countries. However, 3 million are from Maghreb and 700,000 from Sub-Saharan Africa. In total, regardless of nationality, in 1999 there were 1.7 million immigrants from mostly Muslim countries to France, 1.7 million children, and 300,000 grandchildren.[5]



Early history

After the conquest of Spain Muslim forces violently pushed into southern France but were turned back at the Battle of Tours in 732. In the 9th century Muslim forces conquered several bases in southern France like Fraxinet. They were expelled in 975.[7]

Barbarossa's fleet in Toulon.

During the winter of 1543-1544, after the siege of Nice, Toulon was used as an Ottoman naval base under admiral Barbarossa. To facilitate the Turkish crews, the Christian population had been evacuated and the Toulon Cathedral was converted into a mosque.

1960-70s labor immigration

Muslim immigration, mostly male, was high following World War II, because the French workforce was inadequate for reconstruction efforts. The immigrants came primarily from Algeria and other North African colonies; however, Islam has an older history in France, since the Great Mosque of Paris was built in 1922, as a sign of recognition from the French Republic to the fallen Muslim tirailleurs mainly coming from Algeria, in particular at the battle of Verdun and the take-over of the Douaumont fort.

French Council of the Muslim Faith

For many French people, the term Muslim is still imprecise, as they sometimes use it to refer to an inherited culture, and sometimes as a varying set of religious practices. Though the French State does not want to have anything to do with religion, in recent years the government has tried to organize a representation of the French Muslims. In 2002, the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy initiated the creation of a "French Council of the Muslim Faith" (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman - CFCM), though wide criticism claimed this would only encourage communitarianism. Though the CFCM is informally recognized by the national government, it is a private nonprofit association with no special legal status. As of 2004, it is headed by the rector of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur - who harshly criticized the controversial Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) for involving itself in political matters during the 2005 riots. Nicolas Sarkozy's views on laïcité have been widely criticized by left- and right-wing members of parliament; more specifically, he was accused, during the creation of the CFCM, of favoring the more extreme sectors of Muslim representation in the Council, in particular the UOIF.

Second generation immigrants

The first generation of Muslim immigrants, who are today retired from the workforce, keep strong ties with their countries, where their families lived. In 1974, the government passed a law allowing families of these immigrants to settle; thus, many children and wives moved to France. Most immigrants, realizing that they couldn't or didn't want to return to their homeland, asked for French nationality before quietly retiring. However, many live alone in housing projects, having now lost their ties with their countries of origin.

The situation was different with the "second generation", born in France, and as such French citizens by jus soli influenced law. As such, they cannot be designated "immigrants", since they were born on national territory. A 1992 reform of the nationality laws delayed obtainment of French nationality until a request at adulthood (where previously it was automatically given). A large number of them are located in housing projects in the suburbs. Unlike in the United States and elsewhere, the French working classes often reside outside large cities, sometimes in villes nouvelles (such as Sarcelles, from which the term sarcellite was derived), for which no infrastructure other than sleeping dormitories have been planned, thus explaining a general boredom which a few allegedly contributed to the 2005 Paris suburb riots.

Olivier Roy indicates that for first generation immigrants, the fact that they are Muslims is only one element among others. Their identification with their country of origin is much stronger: they see themselves first through their descent (Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, etc.).

Religious practices

The bulk of Muslims practice their religion in the French framework of laïcité as religious code of conduct must not infringe the public area. They may practice prayer (salah – though few pray five times a day as the salah requires), most observe the fast of Ramadan and most do not eat pork while many do not drink wine.

Some muslims (the UOIF for example) request the recognition of an Islamic community in France (which community remains to be built) with an official status.

Two main organisations are recognized by the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM): the "Federation of the French Muslims" (Fédération des musulmans de France) with a majority of Moroccan leaders, and the controversial "Union of Islamic Organisations of France" (Union des organisations islamiques de France) (UOIF), influenced by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

1,535 mosques exist in France, and roughly 100 of them were built for that purpose. About 30 are currently being built.


The Mosque in Trappes, Yvelines.

Since publicly funded State schools in France must be secular, owing to the 1905 separation of Church and State, Muslim parents who wish their children to be educated at a religious school often choose private (and therefore fee-paying) Catholic schools, of which there are many. Few specifically Muslim schools have been created. There is a Muslim school in La Réunion (a French island to the east of Madagascar), and the first Muslim collège (a school for students aged eleven to fifteen) opened its doors in 2001 in Aubervilliers (a suburb northeast of Paris), with eleven students. Two other schools are planned as of 2003. Unlike most private schools in the USA and the UK, these religious schools are affordable for most parents since they may be heavily subsidised by the government (teachers' wages in particular are covered by the State). Henceforth, the opening of Muslim schools may be a significant goal for Muslims pursuing a communitarianism policy, or simply for those who refused to abide by the recent French Republic ban on ostentatious religious signs at school. However, while the debate about this law was quite heated, statistics have shown that only a very low minority of high-school students have refused to abide by it.


Several studies reveal that France seems to be, among the Western countries, the one where Muslims integrate the best and feel the most for their country. They also show the best opinions about their fellow citizens of different faiths. The study from the Pew Research Center on Integration is a good example of works revealing this typically French phenomenon which seems to lead to the conclusion that France has no lessons to learn from its critics.[8]


The 2005 French riots serves as an illustration of the problems of integrating Muslims in France, and smaller scale riots have been occurring throughout the 1980s and 1990s, first in Vaulx-en-Velin in 1979, and in Vénissieux in 1981, 1983, 1990 and 1999. Furthermore, while Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that most rioters were immigrants and already known to the police, although a majority was previously unknown by the police. French suburbians allegedly constantly complain about the stigmatisation of their revolt, falsely over-simplified as a so-called "Muslim riot". French actor Roschdy Zem said in an interview with the French magazine Première given during the promotion of the movie Indigènes about those riots:

"Making of those riots an ethnico-religious affair seemed to me particularly disgusting. When railwaymen are blocking France, nobody goes search further as their demands. Take any Norwegian or Swede, inflict the same life conditions [as those of some French banlieusards] on them and I can assure you that they will end up burning cars too..."[citation needed]

Several parties, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National and Bruno Mégret's Mouvement National Républicain, believe that large numbers of immigrants with non-Western European cultural background destabilize France and recognize that there is a clear danger in Islamist behavior among the immigrant Muslim population. In the 2004 regional elections, the MNR ran on a "No to Islamization!" platform.

In 2004, the French government expelled several foreign imams for preaching hate, an action highly criticized by Amnesty International. In a few cases, expulsion warrants on the basis of immigration status had already been issued.

A few issues are crystallizing the debate, the hijab issue being the most significant.


The wearing of hijab in France has been a very controversial issue since 1989. The debate essentially concerns whether Muslim girls who choose to wear hijab may do so in state schools. A secondary issue is how to protect the free choice and other rights of young Muslim women who do not want the veil, but who may face strong pressure from families or traditionalists. Similar issues exist for civil servants and for acceptance of male Muslim medics in medical services.

Many Muslims believe that the Qu'ran instructs women to keep their heads covered (outside of the immediate family) even though some others, including Leila Babes in her book "The Veil Demystified", believe that wearing the veil does not derive from a Muslim religious imperative [9]. Some Muslims argue that it is a form of religious discrimination not to allow head-coverings in school. They believe that the law is an attempt to impose secular values on them. The specific parts of the Qu'ran are interpreted differently by groups of more liberal Muslims; another source for the requirement to keep women's heads covered is in the Hadith.

The French government, and a large majority of public opinion are opposed to the wearing of a "conspicuous" sign of religious expression (dress or symbol), whatever the religion, as this is incompatible with the French system of laïcité. In December 2003, President Jacques Chirac said that it breaches the separation of church and state and would increase tensions in France's multicultural society, whose Muslim and Jewish populations are both the biggest of their kind in Western Europe.

The issue of Muslim hijabs has sparked controversy after several girls refused to uncover their heads in class, as early as 1989. In October 1989, three Muslim schoolgirls wearing the Islamic headscarf were expelled from the collège Gabriel-Havez in Creil (north of Paris). In November, the First Conseil d'État ruling affirmed that the wearing of the Islamic headscarf, as a symbol of religious expression, in public schools was not incompatible with the French school system and the system of laïcité. In December, a first ministerial circular (circulaire Jospin) was published, stating teachers had to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to ban the wearing of Islamic headscarf.

In January 1990, three schoolgirls were expelled from the collège Pasteur in Noyon, north of Paris. The parents of one expelled schoolgirl filed a defamation action against the principal of the collège Gabriel-Havez in Creil. As a result, the teachers of a collège in Nantua (eastern part of France, just to the west of Geneva, Switzerland) went on strike to protest the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in school. A second ministerial circular was published in October, to restate the need to respect the principle of laïcité in public schools.

In September 1994, a third ministerial circular (circulaire Bayrou) was published, making a distinction between "discreet" symbols to be tolerated in public schools, and "ostentatious" symbols, including the Islamic headscarf, to be banned from public schools. In October, some students demonstrated at the lycée Saint Exupéry in Mantes-la-Jolie (northwest of Paris) to support the freedom to wear Islamic headscarves in school. In November, approximately twenty-four veiled schoolgirls were expelled from the lycée Saint Exupéry in Mantes-la-Jolie and the lycée Faidherbe in Lille.

Since 1994, around 100 girls have been excluded from French state schools for wearing such veils. In half the cases, courts have subsequently overturned the decision.[citation needed]

In December 2003, President Chirac decided that the law should prohibit the wearing of visible religious signs in schools, according to laïcité requirements. The law was approved by parliament in March 2004. Items prohibited by this law include Muslim hijabs, Jewish yarmulkes or large Christian crosses. It is still permissible to wear discreet symbols of faith such as small crosses, Stars of David or Fatima's hands.

Some religious leaders have showed their opposition. Two French journalists working in Iraq, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were taken hostage by the "Islamic Army in Iraq" (an Iraqi resistance militant movement) under accusations of spying. Threats to kill the two journalists if the law on headscarves was not revoked were published on the Internet by groups claiming to be the "Islamic Army in Iraq". The two journalists were later released unharmed.[10]

The arguments have resurfaced when, on 22 June 2009, at the Congrès de Versailles, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that the Islamic burqa is not welcome in France, claiming that the full-length, body-covering gown was a symbol of subservience that suppresses women's identities and turns them into "prisoners behind a screen." A parliamentary commission of thirty-two deputies and led by André Gerin (PCF), was also formed to study the possibility of banning the public wearing of the burqa or niqab.[11] There is suspicion, however, that Sarkozy is "playing politics in a time of economic unhappiness and social anxiety."[1]

A Muslim group spokesman expressed serious concern over the proposed legislation, noting that “even if they ban the burqa, it will not stop there,” adding that “there is a permanent demand for legislating against Muslims. This could go really bad, and I’m scared of it. I feel like they’re turning the screws on us.”[1]

On January 25, 2010 it was announced that the parliamentary committee, having concluded its study, would recommend that a ban on veils covering the face in public locations such as hospitals and schools be enacted, but not in private buildings or on the street.[12]

Rai music

The Muslim immigrant population in France, comprised mainly of Franco-Maghrebi individuals, has become a prominent minority presence in the nation. The rai music genre provides an example of cultural syncretism when discussed in “Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap, and Franco-Maghrebi Identities.” Rai music originated in Algeria and is sung in the Orani Arab dialect. Its lyrics, often discussing of social issues, gained a substantial audience in the French Muslim population and French population as a whole, a new derivatives called Raï n' B (a mix of Raï and R&B) with lyrics both in French and Arabic is particularly popular.[13] For some Franco-Maghrebis, rai is a cultural expression for a minority struggling to carve out an ethnic identity and a space for itself in what is sees as an inhospitable environment [13]


Formal as well as informal Muslim organisations help the old French citizens to integrate into the new Islamic society. There are no Islam-based political parties, but a number of cultural organisations. Their most frequent activities are homework help and language classes in Arabic, but ping pong, Muslim discussion groups etc. are also common. However, most important associations active in assisting with the immigration process are either secular (GISTI, for example) or ecumenist (such as the protestant-founded Cimade).

The most important national organisation is the CFCM (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman), which gathers Paris and Marseille's mufti, and also the UOIF, which has many links with Arab governments and negotiates with the French government. It is a very broad organisation and there is no real consensus on major issues.

Two more left wing organizations are PCM (Muslim Participation and Spirituality), which combine political mobilization (against racism, sexism etc.) and spiritual retreats and parties. The other is CMF (well-known as "the organization close to Tariq Ramadan", though he is not their leader). Both of these organizations put a lot of emphasis on the need to get involved in French society - by joining organizations, registering to vote, working with your children's schools etc. They do not have clear-cut political positions as such, but push for active citizenship. They are vaguely on the Left in practice.

The government has yet to formulate an official policy towards making integration easier. As mentioned above, it is difficult to determine in France who may be called a Muslim. Some Muslims in France describe themselves as "non-practicing". Most simply observe Ramadan and other basic rules, but are otherwise secular.

Islamist movements

Islam (Islamisme in French) is a term that is rather less used, perhaps due to its lack of precision. The following terms are instead used : Islamiste (when referring to a person of extremist opinions), islamique (for a qualifier, the "hidjab" or foulard islamique, or barbe islamique, the beard; this does not have the connotation of extremism), mouvement islamique (to refer to a political movement), mouvement intégriste or mouvement extrémiste (to refer to a fundamentalist group), mouvement terroriste (for a terrorist group).

In countries with Muslim majorities, Islamist movements are essentially political. Olivier Roy calls Islamists those which see in Islam a political ideology, in the modern sense of the term. In other words a theory which presumes to entirely understand the social side of a society, in political terms.

Islamists want to influence the laws of the state. When using the term Islamist, Muslims refer almost exclusively to those whose program is to establish an Islamic state. There are many more movements to establish such states than are recognized as Islamist by the West, thus the use is not very uniform.

This is not to say that Islamist groups overtly advocate violent takeover in every political environment, so they should not be seen necessarily as terrorists. They might simply advocate Shari Law, and introduction of death penalty for homosexuals, genital mutilation for little girls, amputation for petty crime and so on. Because influence in French politics is possible without resorting to violence, the use of violence in that context is considered counterproductive toward achieving their goal of guiding the political system according to the principles of Islam. However, in Algeria, the situation is different. Events there ultimately affect the stance of Islamists toward France itself, as the hope of bringing about an Islamic state in Algeria is a cause for which some French Islamists are willing to turn to violence. Islamic terrorism events in France have been linked to Algerian Islamists.

The political aim of Islamists is ultimately the formal establishment of Sharia law, with or without modern adaptations. Fundamentalism and traditionalism, of themselves, do not have this specific political connotation at all. Islamists are deemed such according to their adherence to the political goal of an Islamic state, rather than by features of their religious observance.

Islamists characterize their movement as:

  • A recall to tradition, which in Arabic is called "Sallaf". This is a doctrine from the end of the 19th century called "la Salafia" (Salafism). It may be found in many Islamist movements, and in particular in Algeria, in one of the GIA groups involved in the Algerian Civil War. (There are several different doctrines in Islamism, and given the variety of the movements, and their varying goals, it is almost always advisable when referring to a specific political movement, to avoid generalizations and refer to it by its name.)
  • A return to following the laws outlined in the Qur'an ("Coran" in French). Islamists support a revolutionary and political reading of the Qur'an, they criticize the anti-Islamic times, also known as a return of the ignorance before the Prophet Mohammed. ("jahhiliyya" - Arabic for ignorance).
  • Islam as religion and State. This position has been adopted, for example, by the djazarist faction of the G.I.A. This group argues that the State itself should ultimately be Muslim in nature.

Islamists often present themselves as a revival movement, a call to Muslims to renew their adherence to fundamental Islamic religious principles and laws, which initially apply only to Muslims.

According to Pascal Mailhos, chief of the Renseignements Généraux (RG), out of 1700 known places of worship, 75 had been subject to attempts of destabilisation by radical elements, half of them resisting the attempts. 31 radical activists have been expelled from French territory, and a dozen have been monitored by the French police.

Islam in France is subject to strong foreign influences. Statistically, only a third of the imams in France have a good command of the French language, another third an average command, and the last third a poor command. This is due to the fact that there exists no imam training school in France, the 1905 law of laïcité preventing the state from sponsoring religious establishments; in this case, any mosques or 'imam schools'. A low number of salafist elements can be found in some regions of France. The RG estimates that about 200,000 Muslims regularly practice their religion, and that there are about 5,000 salafists, of whom one quarter are involved in radical Islamism. However, its reports on security issues have often been criticized, for example by Le Monde Diplomatique or Le Canard Enchaîné.

According to the RG head, Pascal Mailhos, radical elements had no influence on the 2005 civil unrest in France.[14]

Terrorist attacks in 1995

France suffered a series of attacks in 1995 masterminded by Khaled Kelkal, and linked back to Algeria. The first violent movements appeared in Algeria in the 1980/1984 by the emergence of a new movement, the M.I.A. (Algerian Islamic movement), led by Mustapha Bouyali. It was dismantled in years 1988/1989. After the dissolution, about 150 people were judged members of this movement. In October 1988, a large meeting mostly made of students in Algiers led to between 500 and 600 dead. These events were used by some Islamists who created new parties, such as the F.I.S. in Algeria (1989/1990) then the G.I.A. (leader Mansour Emezziani), reconstructed from the M.I.A. The first violent action of the G.I.A. occurred in 1992 before elections in Algeria. This date was the beginning of many violent actions, which have had repercussions in France, because of the very tight ties between France and its former colony Algeria.

Ethnic violence in 2006

The torture [15] and murder [16] of Ilan Halimi intensified Islamic antisemitism in France, and ethnic tension between Jews and Muslims, and especially in areas where working-class Jews inhabit the same lower-class banlieue.[17]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Burqa Furor Scrambles French Politics
  2. ^ Background Note: France, U.S. Department of State.
  3. ^ (French) Ifop, Sofres (Archive copy at the Internet Archive), Croyants et athées, où habitent-ils en France?
  4. ^ CIA - The World Factbook - France.
  5. ^ a b (French) Les vrais chiffres by Gilbert Charles and Besma Lahouri, L'Express, 2003-04-12; see also (English) Michèle Tribalat, Counting France's Numbers—Deflating the Numbers Inflation, The Social Contract Journal, vol. 14.2, Winter 2003-2004
  6. ^ L'Islam en France et les réactions aux attentats du 11 septembre 2001, Résultats détaillés, of the Institut Français de l'Opinion Publique (IFOP), (HV/LDV No.1-33-1, 28 September 2001)
  7. ^ Manfred, W: "International Journal of Middle East Studies", pages 59-79, Vol. 12, No. 1. Middle East Studies Association of North America, 1980.
  8. ^ The French-Muslim Connection by Jodie T. Allen, 2006-08-17
  9. ^
  10. ^ UNESCO Welcomes Release of French Journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot
  11. ^ Du voile à l'école au port de la burqa dans l'espace public, le débat a changé
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ a b Gross, Joan, David McMurray, and Ted Swedenburg. "Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap, and Franco-Maghrebi Identities." Diaspora 3:1 (1994): 3- 39. [Reprinted in The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader, ed. by Jonathan Xavier and Renato Rosaldo, 1.]
  14. ^ L'antiterrorisme, selon le patron des RG
  15. ^ Campbell, Matthew (April 2, 2006). "Barbarians of suburbs target French Jews". World News. London: Times Online. Retrieved May 12, 2009. 
  16. ^ Smith, Craig S. (March 5, 2006). "Torture and Death of Jew Deepen Fears in France". International. The New York Times.;ex=1142226000;amp=&pagewanted=all. Retrieved May 11, 2009. 
  17. ^,7340,L-3515340,00.html quotes Philippe Ovadia, the head of the Jewish community living in the very same lower-class area as the place where Halimi was held captive.

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