France is a nation of immigrants that lacks a proud poetry about tempest-tossed seekers of golden doors. Although approximately 20 percent of the French population is of immigrant origin (considering at least one grandparent), immigration has had, until the late twentieth century, a marginal impact on French collective identity. At the same time, the influx of immigrants constituted a major demographic fact, resulting from industrial development, imperialism, political persecution, decolonization, and globalization. From the end of the nineteenth century until World War II, France welcomed the greatest number of refugees in the world since the United States closed its doors with exclusion acts and imposed more rigid quotas during the interwar years. French national identity since the Revolution, however, has been forged out of shared mythic origins (helped by schoolbooks that taught about “our ancestors, the Gauls”) and rested squarely on the principle that permanent residents needed to assimilate into a decidedly Gallic form of French culture. This myth has begun to be rewritten.
In July 1998, the colors of the tricolor appeared to change from “bleu, blanc, rouge” (blue, white, red) to “black, blanc, beur.” (black, white, and the colloquial term for the French-born of Arab descent). The French national soccer team, whose stars offered a dramatic portrait of the diversity of the French people, prevailed in the World Cup at home, winning the championship in its own newly built “Stade de France,” located in the heavily immigrant-populated northern suburb of Paris, St. Denis. Names such as Zidane, Djrokaeff, and Karembeu revealed the Algerian, Polish, and New Caledonian origins of some of the great heroes whose victory was fêted with spontaneous and traffic-stopping outbursts of joy on the Champs-Elysées, only days before the official national holiday. This triumph suggested that unity had emerged from the diversity of modern France.
The modern French state has operated with an unflinching sense that difference endangers civic unity, a trope going back to the Revolution’s ideal of a unitary republican culture. But that culture has not prevented rationalizations for the differences of status that justified slavery, colonization, and racial laws. Assimilation in France has been driven by the notion that the Republic consisted of one people, one language, under one set of laws, which itself was a variation on the French monarchy’s idea of the kingdom. The Revolution’s disestablishment of Roman Catholicism enfranchised Protestants and Jews as individuals but not the Protestant and Jewish communities. The French state has since maintained a vigilant suspicion of what in French is called “communautarisme,” which is used to negatively invoke the drive for the special recognition of religious and ethnic communities that in other societies might simply be called “ethnic pluralism.” This particular attitude is also evident in such terms as “discrimination positive” (positive discrimination) to mean what Anglo-Saxon countries label “affirmative action.”
9. The multiracial world champion French soccer team sings the national anthem in the Stade de France, July 12, 1998. Their success proved that unity could emerge from multi-ethnic and racial France.
Republican education, as it had transformed “peasants into Frenchmen,” would provide the mechanism of assimilation. It did not dawn on the host culture that immigrants would not pursue cultural integration into Frenchness as a goal and value in and of itself. For centuries the French monarchy, and then the Republic, had managed to project enough élan that French values and culture signified a measure of civilization to be admired and imitated in nonsubjugated cultures. With a vast empire that, by 1900, stretched from Indochina to the Caribbean, claimed one-third of Africa, and was second in size only to the British, France confidently imagined it could extend its integration through education even in far-flung parts of the empire.
French state record-keeping practices put the investment in the unity of the Republic in concrete form. Since 1872, for example, religion has not appeared as a category on the French census. In order to increase diversity among the student body, early twenty-first century educational reforms at one of the elite institutions of higher education, the Institut d’Etudes des Sciences Politiques, targeted students geographically rather than racially, identifying those from “disadvantaged educational zones.” Critics of France say the fear of communautarisme is used to thwart the demands for equality by religious and ethnic minorities.
This French stance has served to integrate European immigrants in France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—if by success one means being recognized as French despite familial national origin. For example, few recall that the well-known singer Yves Montand was born Ivo Livi to Italian immigrants; the singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg was the son of Jewish Russian immigrants; and the philosopher Henri Bergson was born to Polish Jews. French Jews have also played an important leadership role in the state from Adolphe Crémieux’s membership in the government of the Second Republic in the mid-nineteenth century to Léon Blum’s serving as prime minister to Robert Badinter’s role as minister of justice for the Socialist president François Mitterrand during the 1980s. With such a history of immigration and assimilation, we come to the heart of what might seem contradictory and hypocritical in other countries but is held in productive tension in France.
The French Revolution ushered in an era in which citizenship and national identity became coterminous. The revolutionaries, in defining the nation, also defined who was outside it as much as who was inside it, and thus rewrote laws of nationality. Under the Old Regime, nationality was based on birthplace in which any person born on soil belonging to the king became his subject. As an attempt to reject the notion of the sovereign’s realm (and with the zeal of revolutionaries who believed that the laws and principles of the Revolution fundamentally embodied it and thus could be spread territorially) postrevolutionary law enshrined citizenship by descent, establishing that paternity determined nationality instead. French imperialism, first under Napoleon and later during the height of colonialism under the Third Republic, spread the concept that also clarified that French civil servants born abroad would be French, however removed from France in residential and life experience. As a society becomes increasingly mobile and diverse, the Old Regime policy of birthplace conveying status seems the more open and tolerant policy of the two, especially in light of the Nazi’s racist ideology based on descent.
France, unlike other Western nations, faced depopulation during the nineteenth century. This demographic fact produced a favorable attitude to immigration because of a perceived labor shortage. Foreign labor offered vital human power in part because the French peasantry, with a good deal of political capital assured by the 1848 law regarding universal male suffrage, profitably stayed on the land longer than in other countries. By 1889, 3 percent of the French population was foreign-born. Belgian, Italian, and Polish laborers worked in mines, in factories, as part of the war effort during World War I, eventually on auto lines and in domestic work (mostly female). Thus, while we may associate the rise of “guest workers” in Europe with the labor boom of the post–World War II era, French industrialization in the nineteenth century depended on just such a system. In response to the first massive wave of immigration into France in the mid-nineteenth century, the French state reversed the course of its modern legal history regarding citizenship in 1851; it adopted birthplace citizenship again with the hope that the state would be able to integrate the children of the newly arrived workers.
European political refugees also arrived in France in the first part of the twentieth century. After Mussolini came to power in Italy, the fuorusciti (those who went outside) arrived in large numbers in the southern part of France, especially in Nice and Marseille, and eventually made their way to Paris. The Renault factory employed Russian refugees as workers. Armenian refugees from the Turkish genocide also arrived in the 1920s. Polish workers were recruited by a coalition of steel and industry known as the Société Générale d’Immigration, who provided them near-exploitative labor contracts as well as legal protection in terms of residency in order to retain their labor. As political persecutions in Eastern Europe increased by the end of the nineteenth century, France also became the home of a sizable Jewish population that further grew in response to the application of racial laws in Germany in the 1930s.
The glass half empty
To paint a rosy picture of assimilation would be to represent an incomplete one. Modern French history includes violent eruptions of public anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism, the enactment of the racial laws of the Vichy regime, debate over whether there is a role for Islam in France, and the continued identification of Africans and Asians as immigrants in the land of their own birth. The Dreyfus Affair is emblematic of the complexity of these issues in France. It gave voice to a very public form of racial anti-Semitism, which was unprecedented in how it ran through the mass press. Yet we can also look back at the affair as scandalous, precisely because the defenders of the Republic and notions of the universal idea of “the rights of man” have been singularly triumphant. Dreyfus was, in fact, vindicated. The Jewish Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas recounted that his father liked to say, “A country that tears itself apart to defend the honor of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.”
This notion offered little comfort, however, to the granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus who was deported from France during the Vichy Regime and died in Auschwitz at the age of twenty-five. Nor did the vindication of Dreyfus permanently make life easy for the Jews in France. The Vichy government, established in the wake of the French defeat, was not only complicit with the Nazis but also independent in its engagement with legal anti-Semitism during the war. The racial laws imposed on French Jews by the Vichy Regime, beginning in late 1940, mark the only instance in modern French history when race (one was categorized a Jew if three grandparents were Jewish or, if you were married to a Jew, if two grandparents were Jewish) defined and determined status.
Even before the French defeat at the hands of the Germans in June 1940, the French government had sought to stem the flood of eastern European Jewish refugees seeking asylum in France by creating refugee camps. France had approximately 350,000 Jews on the eve of the war, half of whom were foreign-born recent arrivals. Between October 1940 and June 1941, a series of laws known as the “Laws of the Jews” effectively excluded all Jews in France from public life. Jews could not be part of the civil service or the professions or work in industry. Starting in the summer of 1941, the state confiscated Jewish property and increasingly established internment camps for Jews, internal enemies (Austrians and Germans), Communists, and eventually Romany gypsies. Camps such as Drancy and Compiègne in the occupied zone went from being internment camps to being transit camps on the road to the death camps after the German invasion of Russia unleashed the “Final Solution.” The government also ordered roundups and deportations, including the arrest in July 1942 of almost 13,000 Jews in Paris, among them 4,000 children who were herded into the bike stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where they were detained without water and food in the middle of the summer until they were transferred to Drancy.
All that said, almost three-quarters of the Jews living in France in 1939, foreign and French, survived the war, and France is now home to Europe’s largest Jewish population (approximately 600,000 Jews). The size of the postwar Jewish population in France was augmented by the arrival of a new wave of immigrants from the former French colonies in the Middle East. After Algerian independence in 1962, for example, about 100,000 Jews, who were already French citizens by virtue of the Crémieux Laws, arrived in France, creating, for the first time there, a large influx of Sephardic Jews.
The empire comes home
Jews were not the only arrivals from the former French colonies during the era of decolonization. Postcolonial migration emerged especially in the wake of the wars of decolonization, marked by the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The experience of migrants in France stems from the very variable French colonial policy in regard to citizenship and other French laws about rights and privileges in the colonies. French political decision-makers thought some groups in the colonies were better suited to assimilation than others. One of the first acts of the Government of National Defense in 1870 had been to give full rights of French citizenship to the Jews residing in Algeria. They saw the Jewish population there as fundamentally modern as opposed to the Islamic Algerian culture, whose tribal and nomadic traditions they interpreted as “primitive” and incapable of conveying political subjectivity. French colonialism thus created new hierarchies within the colonies: Jews versus Muslims; the Kabyle (Berber)-speaking versus the Arabs of Algeria.
French colonialists doubted the ability of Muslim Arabs to assimilate because of the important role Islam played in civic life. Until 1946, Muslims were subjects rather than citizens in French Algeria and were governed for the most part by their own indigenous Islamic law. Muslims could seek French citizenship if they were willing to sign away the right to be governed by Muslim law, which constituted a fundamental rejection of Islam. By 1937, only 2,500 Algerians had asked for citizenship through this mechanism. By 1962, only 7000 Muslims had become naturalized French citizens. In 1931, Léon Blum, then a leftist deputy from Narbonne, and Maurice Viollette, an ex-governor general of Algeria, took up the possible expansion of political rights to the indigenous male Algerian elite without affecting their personal Muslim status. By this point, native troops had contributed a great deal to the war effort between 1914 and 1918 (in fact, the Paris mosque was built in 1922 in honor of the sacrifices of North African troops during the war). The year 1931 was also, not coincidentally, when the Colonial Exposition opened in the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris as a display of French imperial élan. Not long thereafter, in 1936 Blum, as prime minister, announced the promotion of almost 21,000 Algerians to citizenship without any consideration of granting independence to Algeria. The white colonials of French origin residing in Algeria, who made it France’s largest settler colony, completely rejected the proposal.
Colonial expansion began to abate in the 1930s. In the period after World War II, independence—rather than the fair application French rights—would emerge as the singular battle cry within the colonies. In the wake of Nazism, especially, it became harder to defend the idea of the inherent superiority of European civilization or of any one culture over another. The United Nations, after the war, declared the right to self-determination for all peoples. In a newfangled continuation of colonial ties that seemed to respond to changing circumstances, the new Fourth French Republic created the “Union française” comprising the French colonies.
Yet anticolonial uprisings marked the postwar era. Displays of anti-colonial sentiment in Algeria upon the celebration of the Nazi defeat in 1945 resulting in the Sétif massacre, the French loss at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina in 1954, and the violent war in Algeria that lasted from 1954 to 1962 also included violence at home in France, such as the notorious massacre of innocents at a protest in Paris (November 17, 1961) against the imposition of a curfew on Algerians living there. France eventually lost all its colonies except Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion, and French Guiana, all of which remain French to this day.
The empire came home after decolonization in ways that have fundamentally structured and shaped life in France ever since. A new wave of immigrants arrived in the wake of independence, especially from northern and western Africa. As a result, Islam is now the second largest religion in France, with estimates of between 3.7 and 5 million people of Muslim origin or faith, making France home to the largest Muslim population in Europe. Postwar immigration has changed the face of the French Republic and challenged its vision of itself as unitary in ways made palpable by ethnic, national, and racial differences.
Before the war, the vast majority of immigrants from North Africa primarily consisted of Berber men who replaced European immigrants in positions of unskilled labor. After the war, French industry sought out more Algerian workers because they were considered better integrated into French culture (being Francophone) than were Italians or Poles. In 1947 a new law allowed the open circulation of laborers between Algeria and France. Between 1946 and the start of the Algerian war, approximately 200,000 Algerians came to France to look for work. Between Algerian independence, as well as that of Morocco and Tunisia, and the Suez Crisis in 1956, more than 1.2 million people arrived in France from North Africa. The majority were French, even if they had never lived in France. Algeria and Tunisia also had a significant population of Italian descent that repatriated to France rather than to Italy since they were French-speaking and saw greater economic opportunity in France. Tens of thousands of so-called “harkis,” Muslim Algerians who served in special French auxiliary military units during the Algerian war, also sought refuge in France, where their reception was not always warm either from the French of European origin or among those of Algerian descent. Unlike the “evolués” (the assimilated French-speaking Algerian Muslims), the “harkis” were indistinguishable from most of the Algerian population, but for their lack of support for the FLN (the victorious Algerian party that led the struggle for independence).
The French government organized and supported immigration with a new system of work permits, given in ten-year increments, which were intended to help develop a path toward citizenship based on work and residency. France sought workers in heavy industry (mining and the automobile industry) as it had a hundred years earlier. During the post–World War II era, aside from North Africans, more than three-quarters of a million Portuguese citizens arrived in France, often clandestinely. Two significant Indochinese migrations occurred—the first around 1954, and the second—the “boat people”—in the 1970s. During that period, African families were reunited when women and children joined the male laborers who constituted the initial postwar wave.
The constriction of the economy beginning in the 1970s, and the particular shift in the labor market away from unskilled and skilled physical labor to tourism and hospitality, created disproportionate unemployment among immigrants. Whether unemployed or employed in low-paying jobs, Portuguese and North African immigrant poverty could be observed in ghettoization, as it had in the nineteenth century when working-class neighborhoods developed in Paris in the newly annexed suburbs of Belleville and in the areas around train stations.
The arrival of immigrants after the war also coincided with a housing crisis in France. In order to eviscerate the growing number of shantytowns that popped up and demarcated the boundaries between large cities and their outskirts, the French government built new apartment buildings in the city as well as housing complexes in industrial suburbs such as Sarcelles, ten miles from central Paris. Government action stepped up after June 1970 when five African workers died of asphyxiation from fumes from a fire in one of the shanties in Aubervilliers, just a few miles northeast of Paris. Known as “cités,” the new housing segregated immigrant communities from French-born ones and helped them to develop a shared identity, a shared colloquial French language, and residential experiences. These have been described in literature and film, for example, in Christiane de Rochefort’s Les Petits enfants du siècle (1961) about French working-class life in subsidized housing in Bagnolet: here mothers produce children to get government financial support. As a pregnant woman pats her stomach, she says, “Here’s my refrigerator”—a luxury she will be able to buy with the money she collects from the government for having another baby. More than thirty years later, Mathieu Kassovitz’s film La Haine (1995) depicts disenfranchised teenage young men in the suburban housing complexes. The film updates the tale of working-class misery with a multicultural set of protagonists who share a common marginalization in French society due as much to race as to class. Such segregation has become a practical form of the “communautarisme” that the French Republic decries.
Of course, as the economy contracted after a remarkable three decades of growth from 1945 to 1975 (“Les Trentes Glorieuses”), whatever covert postcolonial racism existed as a practice was articulated as an ideology and political program of the French National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. He believes that the culture of former colonial subjects who are now immigrants is incompatible with French life. Le Pen is the most recent incarnation of right-wing xenophobia that used to take its most virulent form in organized anti-Semitism, such as that exhibited during the Dreyfus Affair. The height of Le Pen’s power came during the 2002 presidential elections when he received more votes in the first round than did Lionel Jospin, the left candidate. Le Pen earned the right to face Jacques Chirac, the incumbent president, in the second round. Protests against Le Pen’s racist extremism began the night he earned the runoff and thus delivered Chirac 82 percent of the vote, one of the biggest landslides in French electoral history. In such moments of clear choice between racism and the values of the rights of man, the French dramatically and emphatically choose the values of the Republic. These may be easy moments of unambiguous choice, but such moments also help perpetuate the unity of the Republic in ways that few modern democratic nations have the privilege to see crystallized except in times of war.
The significant issue for France now is not as much the fate of new arrivals as the integration of those who have already arrived. The rate of immigration to France since the 1980s has slowed relative to other European countries. Tighter legislation about entry, in the form of the anti-immigration Pasqua laws of 1993, has discouraged immigration while creating a new and vital realm of undocumented workers known as the “sans-papiers” (without papers). Although many North African immigrants may have initially harbored a dream of returning home, the reality is that the vast majority have stayed in France, growing from 28 percent of the foreign population in France in 1975 to 39 percent in 1990. Where once the plight of immigrants gave voice to social outrage at poor living conditions, the discussion has turned to whether the new immigrants can actually become integrated members of French society more generally.
When François Mitterrand was elected in 1981, his government sought to improve social services to immigrants, to reform the nationality code, and to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants in order to create greater loyalty to France. The government met new and organized challenges from the now adult second-generation children of immigrants, known as “beurs” (a colloquial term for French-born children of Arab North African descent), who sought integration into French society and demanded justice in response to acts of racial discrimination. The organization, SOS Racisme, emerged from this period of social protest with a brand of French multiculturalism. The energy behind that organization waned by the end of the 1980s. That moment also produced the government’s founding of the Institut du Monde Arabe as a secular institution dedicated to illuminating Franco-Arab relations in a spectacular architectural setting on the banks of the Seine, as if to declare that France accepted that Arab culture was indeed a part of French culture.
The peculiar French politics of multiculturalism
Discussions about social class and economic disenfranchisement shifted to those about cultural identity and racial discrimination after the 1980s. The facts of demography made clear that the number of French-born children of parents born elsewhere was increasing, especially by virtue of a differential birth rate between Muslims and non-Muslims in France. French Muslims may over the course of the twenty-first century constitute closer to one-quarter than one-tenth of the population of France. These changes and tensions also form the background history for the wild celebrations of France’s multicultural World Cup–winning soccer team as proof that the new face of France could be multiracial and also strong.
The extreme focus on cultural difference has made discussion about Arab immigrants turn into conversations about Muslims in France. Much of this discussion began in the Republican schools that had played a key role in constructing national identity in a secular Republic. The schools have, in effect, a history of religious intolerance—to Roman Catholicism, that is. In fact, in January 1994, in the midst of ongoing controversies that began in 1989 in the northern French town of Creil where three middle-school girls were expelled for wearing headscarves, nearly 1 million protestors took to the streets of Paris in defense of secular education against the new right-wing government of Edouard Balladur. His intention was to subsidize Catholic education, which led to protest from secularists. At the same time, the “headscarf affair” eventually led to the appointment of a national commission to examine the question of religion in the schools from the Muslim angle. At the end of 2003 the Stasi Commission ruled against the wearing of obvious religious symbols such as large crosses, yarmulkes, and the headscarf in the name of their mission to assure sexual equality and secularism in the public sphere.
The decision has continued to provoke debate rather than settle it, in part because of political changes within France and across the world. What is most dramatic about the period from 1989 when the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Versesprovoked a declaration of a call for his public execution in Iran to beyond the attacks of September 11, 2001, is an awareness and fear of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. This development is itself a product of an international context of the new form of deterritorialized political communities developed by the Internet. Within France, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism must also be set in relation to new public discussion about sexual equality, especially in the wake of the adoption of the law on parité(equality) in 2000, which has resulted in slates of candidates needing to have equal representation of men and women in French elections. In a Republic that had denied women the vote until 1944, some wondered about the opportunism of the newfound feminism of the French state and its rejection of the veil in the name of guaranteeing women’s equality. Opponents of the veil have been inspired by the rhetoric of parité, arguing that the veil amounts to a potent symbol of women’s domination in Islam. Still others have suggested that wearing the veil allows young women to assert control over their self-presentation.
Whether gender discrimination is a genuine or opportunistic concern in debates about the veil, there is no doubt that such controversies transpired across Europe at the turn of the twenty-first century. With the largest Muslim population in Europe, France is necessarily a key site for understanding the future of multicultural Europe as well as the meaning of transnational fundamentalist Islamic identity within it. The French-Muslim connection is particular. Many Muslims in France originally came from French colonies, and the French government has not been particularly repentant about its imperial past. The French state also continues to have an unusually large stake in wielding influence in the Middle East, a region that remains a center of Francophonie, making any rise in a Pan-Islamic identity of great importance to France.
Unemployment, racial discrimination, and social marginalization underscored by housing segregation are the breeding grounds for a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism as it can be used to provide both a positive identity and an alternate program for the future. In particular, economic stagnation in France disproportionately affects those of immigrant origins as the increased lack of economic mobility traps them in the lowest social conditions. The riots that began in the Parisian suburbs in October 2005 suggest the complex overlap between economic disenfranchisement and racial discrimination. The riots were triggered by the accidental death of two French-born teenage boys in Clichy-sous-Bois; chased by the police, they were electrocuted when they broke into a fenced-off area that held a power transformer. People living in impoverished neighborhoods broke out in violent protest around France. They burned cars and participated in other forms of civilian unrest, not unlike the race riots that Britain and the United States had witnessed in the 1960s, but that France had largely avoided in the period marked instead by student riots of May 1968. When the then minister of the interior Nicolas Sarkozy called in the imams to help quell the rioters, their ineffectiveness suggested that the situation had little to do with Muslim identity.
The mixed response to the Stasi Commission report on the veil among the Muslim community and the riots in 2005 suggest there is no one French Muslim community. In fact, only in 2003 did an organization come to exist to “represent” the Muslims of France: theConseil français du culte musulman (French council of the Muslim religion), which has become the spokesgroup of the community. This group vies for adherents with other groups, such as the more militantly fundamentalist Union des organizations islamiques de France (Union of French Islamic organizations) led by Fouad Alaoui. The increased connection between the Muslims living in France and the French state came as the government grasped that 90 percent of imams in France were born and trained elsewhere, making them potentially unequipped to understand the specificities of life in France; indeed, some of them were simultaneously linked to radical forms of Islam that had their bases outside of France.
The increasingly important role of politicized Islam in French Muslim life and the new focus on it in the media has been fomented in part by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In particular, while French Christian anti-Semitism is on the wane, vandalism and violence perpetrated by Muslims against Jews in France has increased, from the bombing of the synagogue on the rue Copérnic in 1980 to more recent desecrations of French Jewish schools. Although France acted as an early ally to the Jewish state from 1948 to 1967, after the Six-Day War, most French presidents have trod a careful course, aligned mostly with the Arab states. The exceptional visit of François Mitterrand to Israel in 1982, when he masterfully spoke some Hebrew and explained his support for a Palestinian state, crystallizes what has been the French position, especially in its autonomy from the United States’ position in the Middle East.
Yet the focus on what seems like a movement of increasing Islamization masks another powerful reality of those French Muslims who constitute one-third of all Muslims living in Europe: their embrace of French Republican values. It is believed that at least one-half to three-fifths of French Muslims are French citizens; the linguistic enforcement in France is so stringent that immigrants in France speak French, which helps produce social integration. When asked whether they identified as Muslim first and French second, only 46 percent responded yes as opposed to 81 percent of Muslims in Britain. French students of Muslim immigrant origin do no worse in school than their non-Muslim schoolmates in poor school districts. According to a poll conducted by the official French polling agency, the CSA, 90 percent of Muslim respondents in 2004 say they favored gender equality, and 78 percent of French Muslims believe Islam is compatible with Republicanism.
Muslims in France do not appear to show profound Pan-Islamic consciousness. For example, when two French journalists were kidnapped in Iraq in 2004 and the hostage-takers demanded the repeal of the headscarf ban, French Muslims supported the government’s rejection of the terrorists’ demands. (The journalists were eventually released, but it is unclear whether any concessions were actually made.) There is no perceptible Muslim “vote” in France. Further, the extreme Left, anti-Israel “Euro-Palestine” list, which campaigned in European Union parliamentary elections, received only 10 percent of the vote in France, even in districts where 40 percent of the voters were Muslim. There has been little Muslim presence, however, among the elected members of the French Parliament. Azouz Begag was the first minister of equal opportunity appointed in 2005 under the Villepin government, but he resigned in 2007.
Islam of France
In the end, history is producing an Islam of France versus simply accounting for the history of Islam in France. The early twenty-first century re-Islamization of a certain part of the French Muslim population has provoked renewed conflict and concern that is often met with inflated rhetoric about the indivisibility of the French Republic. It is with practical measures that bridge the economic and social gaps between the French children of recent waves of immigrants and other French people, and probably with more visible symbols such as the national soccer team, that France will remake its cultural bouillon. Modern France, where peasants were once “turned into Frenchmen,” will sustain its singular identity while adapting to the changes resulting from its most recent flux of migrations in the period of World War II. Whatever one’s creed, such shared experiences as the support of a national sports team, and the production and consumption of musical and cinematic language, creates community and defines French identity among residents of France. The conception of a unitary French state dedicated to advancing an idea of “humanity” while effectively integrating difference remains one of the singular challenges and missions of modern France.