France's Muslim Predicament

February 16, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: FranceMuslimEmmanuel MacronPolicyPolitics

France's Muslim Predicament

The debate over Islam in France is not new. But there is good reason to think that it is at a turning point.

Large numbers of North African immigrants came to France after World War II at what seemed to be a good time. There was need for help in rebuilding a nation devastated by war. The French economy was then entering a period of rapid growth. Immigrants could benefit from the historic engines of integration, plentiful jobs, and a strong trade union movement. What was not obvious at the time was that the industrial era was winding down, that French heavy industry was not competitive, and that jobs were about to disappear. The trade union movement and the PCF declined rapidly in the early 1980s. The post-industrial period, which offered few opportunities for the unskilled and necessitated high levels of education, had begun.

With the end of working-class solidarity, immigrants and their children lost one of their forms of identity. Unemployment hovered around 10 percent, but it was higher for minorities. The labor market was no longer an easy path towards integration into French society. The realization on the part of North African immigrants that they were going to stay in France coincided roughly with the slowdown of the economy, leaving many stranded. 

Since the 1980s, high unemployment among immigrants and their children has become chronic. The French Institute for Demographic Studies’ 2010 report Trajectoires et Origines (recent enough to remain relevant) provides an invaluable look at the unemployment situation of immigrants and their descendants as well as their own assessment of the role of discrimination in hiring. According to the report, 15 percent of first-generation male Algerian immigrants, 11 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians, and 10 percent of Turks were unemployed; for the second generation, the figures stood at 17 percent of Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians, and 19 percent of Turks. Unemployment was much higher than for immigrants in general (10 percent) and double that of the population as a whole (8 percent). Equally relevant is the number of those who felt that they have been unjustly denied employment: for first-generation immigrants, 24 percent of male Algerians, 19 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians, and 9 percent of Turks. The number for females was even higher. For second-generation immigrants, 21 percent of male Algerians, 27 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians, and 17 percent of Turks. Interestingly though, the figures for second-generation women were lower. Nonetheless, what is striking is not only how high these rates were, but how the situation of the second generation (those born in France) is still perceived to be even worse.

HOUSING CONSTITUTES another major factor in the relegation of minorities. The archetypical French ghetto today is constituted by large-scale, low-cost public housing projects, the cités, with much of their populations composed of immigrants or children of immigrants. The peculiar nature of French public housing is in large part responsible for the problem of segregation today. Yet, this result is truly an example of “unintended consequences;” at their inception, these cités were intended to provide good housing for the native French working-class population. They were seen as the triumph of technocratic genius and high modernist architecture.

French housing policies in the interwar period were largely laissez-faire. After World War II, France embarked on an extensive, low-cost public housing development program. Although most people preferred single-family houses, public authorities decided that massive housing developments were needed. Such developments were to be constructed outside existing towns—urban planners wanted these projects to be self-contained and have nothing to do with the existing built environment. They were exemplars of high modernism; Le Corbusier on a budget.

At the outset, their stark geometric forms and grandiose scale were an intoxicating change from France’s beaux art traditions; but their originality paled as they became the norm. The problem was that they were unpleasant places to live; by their very nature, they were factories of anomie. Doubtless, many people were initially delighted to move out of dilapidated structures without basic sanitary amenities to modern buildings with heating, running water, and private bathrooms. But they soon discovered the disadvantages as well: poor access to public transportation, difficulty getting to work, no available local shopping, the lack of nearby social sites like cafes, etc. In short, these cités were isolated, claustrophobic, and boring.

As housing shortages disappeared and long-term mortgages became available under the Giscard government in the 1970s, many residents were happy to leave. And as they left, immigrants came in. The large-scale movement of immigrants produced a “white flight” effect. Eventually, these projects became inhabited mostly by immigrants. Socially-mobile populations tended to move to better housing, leaving the remainder with a feeling of being marooned. These “native French” who remained were, and often remain, antagonistic to the new residents. What had once been the “Red Belt”—the Communist-dominated towns around Paris—turned into strongholds for the National Front.

The result is a vicious circle; a kind of ghetto syndrome that has much in common with the problem of low-income public housing projects in the United States. With the decline of industrial employment, much of the working-age population became unemployed and dependent on welfare. They lost prestige in the eyes of their children. Students go to schools that are largely filled with other immigrants. In time, schools themselves ceased to be seen as vehicles of social mobility and more like instruments of social control. Anti-social behavior proliferated. Lacking low-skilled employment, many young people have joined gangs, engaged in drug trafficking (it is significant that the term for the drug trade is bizness), or fallen under the sway of Islamists. 

The French social welfare system enables the population of the ghetto to survive, but in a state of economic and social marginalization. The projects became a model for the kind of “unassimilated” young people the extreme political right loves to denounce. As a result of their demeanor and the kind of ghetto fashions they adopted, they were ideal candidates for a kind of kabuki dance: the French equivalent of “stop and frisk” (contrôle au faciès) encounters with the police, which embittered them further. The resulting arrests have led to a proliferation in the prison population; estimates indicate that more half of the prison population is comprised of Muslims. 

According to sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie’s book, Le Ghetto urbain, the population of the ghetto do not feel like they are living in the real world; they live in a grey zone, with jobs that are not real jobs, with cheap public housing, and with leisure activities organized by public authorities. There seems to be no way out. And as the cités became mostly segregated, so too did local schools. In fact, not only does the school system seem like a barrier for many, a place where they suffer rejection, but even those who are academically successful do not get jobs, or, if they do, not at the level they anticipated. Widespread discrimination by name and zip code is the norm.

BETWEEN THE French Revolution through the early twentieth century, the struggle between the political left and right was mostly over two issues: the appropriate form of government for France—monarchy or republic—and the struggle between anti-clericals and practicing Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church generally supported a monarchy and was closely tied to the aristocracy. After defeat in the Franco-Prussian War though, the Third Republic was declared. And how could the Republic survive if public education was in the hands of a Church which opposed it?

In 1871, Republican leader Léon Gambetta proclaimed that “clericalism is the enemy.” The Jules Ferry Laws of the 1880s created the modern French system of public education, which is free, mandatory, and firmly in the hands of the Republic. Schoolmasters became the missionaries of the secular worldview. French culture wars continued with the Dreyfus Affair, which began as an accusation of treason against one man (who happened to be a Jew) and turned into a battle between clericalist right and the anti-clericalist left. The end result was the separation of church and state and the advancement of laïcité—a secularity that discourages religious involvement in government affairs and in the determination of state policies.

The concept, once a source of division, is now a matter of consensus for most Frenchmen. Yet there has always been a tension within French republicanism between a feeling that laïcité means guaranteeing the right to genuine religious freedom and a sense that it involves perpetuating the battle against religious obscurantism.

This culture makes it difficult for some Muslims to fit into French society. Islam is a public, embodied religion, and Muslims make demands about their religious needs, like halal food in the canteen, facilities for prayer on the job, and the right for women to wear a headscarf in public facilities and at work. This is occurring at a time when the great majority of France has become extremely secularized in all respects, including sexual and gender values.

It’s not surprising that many Muslims, particularly those who only came to France recently from societies with different values, are uncomfortable with these developments. That puts them at crosscurrents with two different groups of Frenchmen: the more conservative French, some of them practicing Catholics who dislike a rival religion, and progressives who believe that Muslim values are in contradiction with modern secular values. Some of the latter sound like nineteenth-century secularists in their jeremiad against the Catholic Church; it’s as if they want to channel Gambetta and proclaim: “L’Islam voilà l’enemi!” This is especially the case with some French feminists, who decry patriarchal attitudes in Muslim communities.