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Islam is one of the various different religions in Francemarker. Although Muslims have been present in Francemarker, both metropolitan France and its overseas departments and territories, for many centuries, mass immigration to France of Muslims in the 20th and 21st centuries has created more recently one of the largest Islamic communities in Europe. The growth of Islam in France can also be attributed to some French converts some of whom, along with other Muslim women, wear the niqab, a veil which covers the face and which has sparked controversy and heated debate.


Estimates of the number of Muslims in Francemarker vary widely. In accordance with a law dating from 1872 , the French Republic does not ask about religion in its census. Nor does it ask for ethnic origin. In 2006 the United Statesmarker Department of Statemarker placed it at roughly 10%, while two 2007 polls placed it at 3% of the national population. The CIA World Factbook places it at 5-10%. In 2000, the French Ministry of the Interior estimated the total number of people born into Islam as 4.1 million and converts as about 40,000. Estimates of numbers of Muslims, and the alleged dangers in the housing projects of the suburbs by the Renseignements Généraux, the intelligence agency, have often been criticized. Critics in particular are the Monde diplomatique and the Canard Enchaîné.

A study conducted by , a researcher at INED, and based on 1999 French census returns, showed that claims of 5 to 6 million Muslims in France were overestimated. According to the census returns, there are 3.7 million people of "possible Muslim faith" in France (6.3% of the total population of Metropolitan France in 1999). 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 far-right organisations have often been hostile to the spread of Islam in France (as elsewhere in Europe).

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 country of origin:

These numbers may include non-religious or atheist individuals of Islam observing lineage. The study L'Islam en France et les reactions 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) found that of people of Islam observing lineage (Muslims), 36% self-describe themselves as "observant believers", and 20% claim to regularly go to the mosque on Fridays. 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 practising 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.

CIA World FactBook Estimates the Muslim population at 5-10%.

Muslim population in France

Early History

After the conquest of Spainmarker Muslim forces also 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.

During the winter of 1543-1544 Toulonmarker was used as an Ottoman naval base under admiral Barbarossa. To facilitate the Turkish crews, the Christian population had been evacuated and the Toulon Cathedralmarker 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 Algeriamarker 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 Verdunmarker and the take-over of the Douaumontmarker fort.

2002 creation of a 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 religions, 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. , 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 can not 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 ville nouvelles (such as Sarcellesmarker for example, 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 allege 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 (Algeriansmarker, Moroccansmarker, Tunisians, etc.).

Muslim religious practices

Muslims in France can be distinguished from French citizens and Muslim immigrants.

Most follow their religion within the French laïcité model: 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.

A small minority (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" (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. This number is low in comparison to the "possible Muslim" population. In comparison, there are about 40,000 Catholic churches for a Catholic population only 15 times bigger, althought this quite easy to understand, since France has been a Catholic country from many centuries ago. There are 1700 Protestant churches for about 500,000 adherents of that faith.

Education issues

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 Réunionmarker (a French island to the east of Madagascarmarker), and the first Muslim collège (a school for students aged 11 to 15) opened its doors in 2001 in Aubervilliers (Paris' close suburbs), with 11 students. 2 other schools are planned . Unlike most private schools in the USAmarker and UKmarker, 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.

Integration issues

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.


The 2005 French riots have been presented especially by the foreign press as an illustration of the problems of integrating Muslims in France, but smaller scale riots have been occurring throughout the 1980s and 1990s, first in Vaulx-en-Velinmarker in 1979, and in Vénissieuxmarker in 1981, 1983 , 1990 and 1999. Furthermore, while Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that most rioters were immigrants and already known to the police, a big proportion of them weren't citizens with either an immigrant or Muslim background and a majority were previously unknown by the police. French suburbians 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..."

Several parties, such as far-right leader 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 Francemarker 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 hijab issue

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 traditionalist. 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 . 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, is 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, Mr. 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'Etat 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 St. Exupery in Mantes-la-Joliemarker (northwest of Paris) to support the freedom to wear Islamic headscarves in school. In November, approximately 24 veiled schoolgirls were expelled from the lycée St. Exupery in Mantes-la-Jolie and the lycée Faidherbe in the city of 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.

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 be 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 wasn't revoked were published on the Internet by groups claiming to be the "Islamic Army in Iraq". The two journalists were later released unharmed.

The arguments have resurfaced when, on June 22, 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 32 deputies and led by André Gerin (PCF), was also formed to study the possibility of banning the public wearing of the Burqa or Niqab. There is suspicion however that Sarkozy is "playing politics in a time of economic unhappiness and social anxiety."

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.”

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. 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

Political Islam

Formal as well as informal Muslim organisations help the new French citizens to integrate. 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 government 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), who 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.

Government efforts toward integration/ assimilation

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-practising". Most simply observe Ramadan and other basic rules, but are otherwise secular.

Islamism in France

Islamism (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 Islamiste, 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. 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" . It may be found in many Islamist movements, and in particular in Algeriamarker, 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 destabilisations 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 Islamism had no influence on the 2005 civil unrest in France.

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, 2006 - Ilan Halimi

The torture and murder of Ilan Halimi intensified ethnic tension between Jews and Muslims, especially in areas where working-class Jews inhabit the same lower-class banlieue.

See also

External links


  1. Burqa Furor Scrambles French Politics
  2. Background Note: France, U.S. Department of State.
  3. Ifop, Sofres ( ), Croyants et athées, où habitent-ils en France?
  4. CIA - The World Factbook - France.
  5. Les vrais chiffres by Gilbert Charles and Besma Lahouri, L'Express, 2003-04-12; see also Michèle Tribalat, Counting France's Numbers—Deflating the Numbers Inflation, The Social Contract Journal, vol. 14.2, Winter 2003-2004
  6. Manfred, W: "International Journal of Middle East Studies", pages 59-79, Vol. 12, No. 1. Middle East Studies Association of North America, 1980.
  7. Eglises de France
  8. Statistiques
  9. The French-Muslim Connection by Jodie T. Allen, 2006-08-17
  11. UNESCO Welcomes Release of French Journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot
  12. Du voile à l'école au port de la burqa dans l'espace public, le débat a changé
  13. Burqa Furor Scrambles French Politics
  14. Burqa Furor Scrambles French Politics
  15. 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.]
  16. L'antiterrorisme, selon le patron des RG
  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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