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.

There is always a time lag as an immigrant population adjusts to majority values. If, as might be argued, French Muslims were evolving in the same direction as the majority of French in their views on social relations, these criticisms are unfair, ahistorical, and unjustified. If second and third-generation Muslims move away from traditional Islamic patriarchal values, it doesn’t much matter if older Muslins still uphold older values. The problem arises if there is a real trend towards re-Islamization amongst French Muslims: that would challenge the basic narrative of French progressive thinking. That Muslims would show their greater religious identification through public display via, above all, clothing, makes the issue even more contentious.

ISLAMOPHOBIA IS the fifth factor that makes it very difficult for French Muslims to integrate, to achieve social mobility, and to feel French. Understanding the intensity of anti-Semitism in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe helps us understand Islamophobia. There is a huge body of conspiratorial thinking about Islam: Muslims are unassimilable, they can never integrate into Western society; they are loyal only to each other; theirs is a religion of hate towards outsiders; they are plotting to take over the world. This kind of thinking parallels the old template of anti-Semitism. Just as committed anti-Semites felt that saving Western Civilization from the fiendish cunning of the Jews required decisive action—preventing further Jewish immigration, expelling Jews, denying or revoking citizenship—so do Islamophobes wish to save Europe from the Muslim threat. These ideas are not based on what Muslims actually do, since they predate 2001. 

What makes the problem of the “Muslim threat” different from anti-Semitism is that, whereas the Jewish conspiracy, the insidious plots of the Elders of Zion, were totally illusory, the products of sick or cynical imaginations, the same cannot be said of the Muslim conspiracy(ies). They exist in the form of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other radicals; their violence and fanaticism are indubitable. Islamist leaders intone great plans—like restoring Muslim control over Al Andalus, giving credence to the idea of conflict of civilizations that Western liberals deny. At the same time, there has been a global trend in Islam in the last few decades from an open and tolerant faith towards hardline fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not the same as jihadism, but is a precondition for it, and both have found resonance among Muslims in Europe and in France.

Fear of Muslims is accentuated by a broader sense of loss of control, the result of our particular historic moment. There is a pervasive sense of economic insecurity and status anxiety in France today, as demonstrated by the influence and persistence of the gilet jaune (yellow vest) movement. A new economic environment is being created based on globalized finance, along with new technologies and skills. The beneficiaries of these are on the rise; they are taking over the great cities and pricing out everyone else. Many people coming from la France profonde feel exposed, unappreciated, unserved by the State, unable to make it to the end of the month; they are experiencing downward mobility while many in the banlieues feel that upward mobility has been blocked. French president Emmanuel Macron claims that his reforms are necessary to revitalize the economy and lower unemployment. That remains to be seen, and Macron has not shown great sensitivity to ordinary people. In any case, how to assure economic prosperity for all in the modern economy is not easy, especially in a Europe with slow growth.

Compounding these problems are the changes brought about by membership in supranational organizations such as nato and the eu. France, for example, no longer directly controls its own monetary policy; it cannot impose tariffs, has been forced to reduce its deficit below 3 percent, and has been unable to bring unemployment much below 10 percent. The result is that the parties of the Far Right, exploiting a nostalgia for the social democratic planned economy of the 1960s, have gradually gained strength. They advocate an end to the eu, the renationalization of the economy, and severe changes to immigration policy. If a nation cannot control its own immigration policy, the argument goes, what is to prevent a greater number of potentially anti-social, welfare-consuming Muslim immigrants from arriving? Fears over loss of control over migration have fused with fears of Islam.

Then there is the terrorism dimension. Muslims constitute a link between two sources of anxiety: international terrorism abroad and domestic terrorism within. It is obvious that there is a real problem when 37 percent of voters in Macron’s own political movement, presumably the party of enlightened progressives, consider Islam a threat. What has occurred is the creation of a phantasmagoric threat cobbled together from real but highly specific problems. This threat is comprehensive; it extends from a local to a global level.

On the local level, the problems include delinquency, the aggressive tone of the ghettos, the experience of majority Frenchmen being a minority in the projects and banlieues, incidents in schools for Jews and majority Frenchmen, the frustration of teachers faced with a sullen or hostile student body, anti-Semitic violence and threats, and more. On the national level, there is jihadism and terrorist activity. And on the global level, there is radicalization from abroad to contend with. And at the same time, the relentless propaganda of the Rassemblement National, which blames most of France’s problems on immigrants, fans the feeling of malaise. The end result is mutual alienation.

French Muslims are thus caught in a difficult bind. During the Third Republic, French Jews squirmed when any Jew was accused of financial fraud. The Stavisky Affair of 1934, for instance, brought about riots which almost toppled the Republic; for the Far Right back then, the scandal seemed to substantiate accusations of Jews as being part of a great financial conspiracy. Likewise today, Muslims find themselves nonplussed at how to respond to acts of terrorism committed by other Muslims, especially by French Muslims. There are few more pernicious fallacies than the accusation that the actions of some members of a group prove the involvement of the group as whole. Yet such an accusation is, regrettably, hard to refute. 

FRANCE IS a battleground in a global conflict within the Muslim world over the future of Islam. There is only one way to come to terms with the issue of the “Muslim threat” today: denying and denouncing fallacious Islamophobic conspiracy theories while recognizing the reality of the threat of jihadism. Both thrive on the Internet; both thrive on ideas marginalized in public discourse. How can French Muslims affect the outcome? What positive role can the state play? The way forward requires addressing the issues which hold Muslims back: the colonial past, economic marginalization, residential segregation, laïcité, and the perceptions of the threat of radical Islam.

The experience of colonialism is responsible for much of the problem faced by immigrants. It is counter-productive to ignore it, to try to cover it up. When French leaders accept responsibility for their nation’s actions, they also take the first step towards healing. Jacques Chirac ended France’s denial over its collaboration with the Germans in the Final Solution. Emmanuel Macron took responsibility for France’s colonial role in Algeria. These were the first steps in affirming that the France of today is not the France of yesterday; that the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, misused or ignored in the past, are nevertheless meaningful today and can be a means of liberation for minorities. Will this help eliminate the stigma of the colonial past borne by people of color who, after three generations are still called immigrants, maghrébins, or people issus de l’immigration, as opposed to just Frenchmen? 

Ending economic marginalization is critical for giving Muslims a real sense of equality, but is extremely difficult. If there is anything that is crucial to the future of French Muslims, it is the rise of a middle class. One would expect that social scientists would be focusing on that process, but it has been mostly ignored. Yet there is good reason to think that it is occurring. Many Muslim families have adopted strategies to ensure that their children can go to good schools with a mixed population outside of ghettos. Young women can play an important role in achieving social mobility for themselves and helping their brothers to do the same. But in all this, education remains the key instrument of social mobility. And therein lies a split in Muslim community: education is both a way out and a source of the problem.

Whereas 9 percent of the native French population have no secondary education diplomas and 34 percent have a degree in higher education, 22 percent of Algerians and 16 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians have no secondary education diploma and, respectively, 20 percent and 31 percent have a higher education degree. What is most striking is the gap between uneducated and highly-educated North Africans; there is a real bifurcation related to education. Some in the Muslim community continue to move ahead into the middle classes and the intelligentsia. A lack of statistics makes it hard to quantify the change, but the number of intellectuals and writers with Arabic names is striking, as are some of the names in Macron’s entourage. To be sure, higher education no longer guarantees careers for anyone, least of all for minorities. There is higher education and higher education. And no one is likely to be more frustrated than a highly-educated individual without a good job. But regardless: for those without much education, the prospects are bleak.