France failing to integrate its Muslim immigrants

France failing to integrate its Muslim immigrants

Muslim women wearing hijabs in Montmartre, Paris. (AFP)

The hideous attack on a mosque in the French city of Bayonne by a former far-right local election candidate (for Marine Le Pen’s party) last week, which injured two Muslim citizens, reveals the mounting hysteria about Islam in some extreme-right circles, but also among some considered to be intellectuals, such as the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam writer Eric Zemmour. Many French TV channels refuse to host him due to his controversial opinions.

France is home to more Muslims (about 5.7 million) than any other country in Europe. They represent more than 8 percent of the population and most are of immigrant origin, mainly from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. 

The hysteria about Islam in France peaked due to a spate of terrorist attacks targeting civilians. The terrorists generally used the phrase “Allahu Akbar” during their operations, claiming they were acting in the name of Islam. The attacks in Paris and the wider Ile de France region in 2015 — one on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead, followed by the targeting of a Jewish kosher supermarket that killed 17, and later the horror of the Bataclan theater and the series of linked attacks that killed 130 people — triggered a kind of scrambling of issues relating to Islam among a large number of the French people. The political class was divided on issues concerning the hijab for women and schoolgirls, immigration, Islamic issues and radicalization.

Last month, a police employee stabbed four of his colleagues to death and injured two others at the Paris police headquarters. The attacker was a longtime convert to Islam. Since then, seven French police officers have been made to hand over their weapons and many others placed under close supervision on suspicion of radicalization. 

These criminal acts have fueled a rise in Islamophobia in many circles of French society, from political actors to media commentators and analysts claiming a specialty in Islam. The debate has become widespread, specifically about the niqab and hijab. France in 2011 became the first European country to impose a ban on full-face veils in public areas — a move based on a 1905 law that makes the country a secular state — while the wearing of any religious symbols, including the hijab, in public schools is also prohibited. 

Public debate on the issue was exacerbated last month, when a mother wearing a hijab on a school trip to a regional council in the city of Dijon was asked by far-right French politician Julien Odoul to remove her head covering. He later tweeted that the woman’s hijab was a “provocation” that could not be tolerated following the attack on the Paris police officers. 

Following a heated debate in political circles, more than 50 discussions on the issue were organized by French TV channels, with various intellectuals either supporting the freedom to wear the veil or opposing it. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said: “The law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children… but the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society.” Christian Jacob, president of the moderate-right The Republicans party, said that wearing the hijab on school trips should be banned. President Emmanuel Macron refused to weigh in on the issue with a formal speech on secularism. However, 50 well-known personalities, including European Parliament member Yannick Jadot, have signed up to attend a demonstration against Islamophobia to be held in Paris on Sunday. 

These continuous debates about head coverings and Islam reflect a deep division within French society, with some immigrants of Arab origin now having a deep-down belief that they are the cause of violence and troubles in the country. This sentiment is being stoked by a growing number of people on the extreme right and even in conservative circles.

Many immigrants of Arab origin now have a deep-down belief that they are the cause of violence and troubles in the country.

Randa Takieddine

The terrorist attacks mentioned above were mainly carried out by French people of North African origin. One has to believe that the integration of immigrants of Arab origin has been a failure in France. A 2011 report revealed that 30 percent of Algerian immigrants were unemployed. The Muslim, Arab-origin communities live mainly on the outskirts of cities in poorer areas. The political class in France, from right to left, has failed in its efforts to integrate North African immigrants. 

The mounting fear of Islam in French society adds to the discrimination against these immigrants and pushes Muslim community members into defending their religious traditions and protecting their identity in a society that is strongly attached to its 1905 law that separates the state from the church. The history of French colonialism in Algeria and its geography as a near neighbor of these North African Muslim countries, which are witnessing political and security upheavals, highlight France’s stark difference from the US, where wearing a headscarf does not provoke so many debates. 

A more successful integration of the immigrant community would most likely contribute to bringing about a solution to the social rift concerning Islam in France.

  • Randa Takieddine is a Paris-based Lebanese journalist who headed Al-Hayat’s bureau in France for 30 years. She has covered France’s relations with the Middle East through the terms of four presidents.
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