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Assessing the Status of Muslim Immigrants in France: Testing the Bounds of Egalité, Fratenité, Liberté, and Laicité

Cristiano Maia Lima

Professor Mishra

POLS 297

13thDecember 2012

Assessing the Status of Muslim Immigrants in France: Testing the Bounds of Egalité, Fratenité, Liberté, and Laicité

            Since its founding in 1958 France’s Fifth Republic has seen many issues challenge the core values upon which it was created. With the rise of the European Union and influx of foreign immigrants in France due to the decolonization of the third world, the government has been tasked with applying the essential concepts of egalité, fraternité, liberté, and laicité to the growing immigrant populations and the issues that have arisen to their spontaneous and unprecedented growth. The results have been mixed, due not only to the complexity of assimilating an influx of foreigners and immigrants with distinctive and at times conflicting cultural backgrounds and practices into a struggling French economy, but also due to strong nationalistic ties that exist in France to this day. This became an increasingly big issue in the recent 2012 French presidential election, where Marine le Penn’s National Front party brought the topic of Muslim immigration to the forefront of the election, forcing former president Nicolas Sarkozy to alter his stance on the matter, as many French politicians prior to him have similarly had to do in the face of this increasingly pressing issue.

To a large extent France has been able to able to provide its citizens with equal treatment, both socially and economically, but the incorporation aspect that is so crucial to establishing true fraternité has been more difficult to achieve. France’s historical role as a primarily catholic state has also made the embrace of the growing amount of Muslim immigrants difficult, in spite of its core underlying principle of strict adherence to separation of church and state, otherwise known as laicité. While much has been done to extend these founding principles out to all those residing in France, immigrant or not, there is still much to be done to establish a truly egalitarian society that is fully inclusive of Muslim immigrants and their sociocultural and religious accommodations.

In Joel Fetzer and Christopher Soper’s inquiry on this topic in Muslims and the State in Britain, France, and Germany it is argued that the fundamental underlying variable upon which these three nations vary in regards to the treatment of Muslim immigration is their history of church-state relationship. They stipulated the following:

“We hypothesize that public policy on state accommodation of Muslim religious practices in Britain, France, and Germany varies based in part on the inherited relationship between church and state in each nation” (Fetzer & Soper, p. 15-16).

While this relationship has indeed greatly impacted the integration of Muslim immigrants in France, it is but one of many variables that have yielded in a turbulent reaction to this growing subset of the population. Firstly, the attitude’s of the French toward Muslim immigrants has been reactionary to economic woes and international security threats. Secondly, France’s strong ideological ties to republicanism and the ideal of equality of citizenship have greatly conflicted with various Muslim religious practices and consequently their ability to become fully integrated. Thirdly, Muslim religious integration of unique cultural religious customs have resulted in various clashes with France’s founding principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité, and laicité. Lastly, the French Fifth Republic’s extremely centralized makes adaptation and accommodation in regards to cultural and religious concessions difficult to attain, particularly at the local level. I propose that it is the intersectionality of all these factors, along with the role of the church-state relationship, that has resulted in a turbulent and at times hostile response to the growing Muslim population in France.

To analyze the role of these factors I shall use and expand upon Fetzer and Soper’s three initial public policy issues to analyze the situation in France. They include “the accommodation of Muslim religious practices in public schools, state funding for Islamic schools, and regulation of the building of mosques” (Fetzer and Sope, p. 21). Furthermore I shall utilize the historical background upon which France was founded to gain a better understanding of how the influx of Muslim immigrants has challenged the application of egalité, liberté, fraternité, and laicité.

Historical Background and Analysis:

French Muslim immigration, as with many former European colonial power, has largely stemmed from their previously held colonies, particularly the North African area known as the Maghreb. Although Muslim migration to France can be traced back as far as 716 A.D., significantly large immigration did not begin until the labor shortage caused after World War II. Following it’s end commended the beginning of Les Trentes Glorieux, a thirty-year period of unprecedented economic growth and development throughout the world and particularly in France. After this period of mass migration nearly 6% of France’s population was consisted of foreign born residents. Periods of economic growth tend to lead countries toward the lessening of policies that impose restrictions on migration into the country, and thusly a large wave of immigrants were able to make a home in France. In particular “French employers and officials especially recruited or ‘regularized’ workers from predominantly Muslim countries as Algeria (independent after 1962), Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey” (Fetzer and Soper, p. 63).

Following the 1973 oil crisis that lead to a massive worldwide recession, more stringent border control policies were implemented across Europe. Because of this “French governments attempted to reduce immigration further and to tighten the requirements for becoming a citizen (Fetzer and Soper, p. 65), namely the Pasqua laws of 1986. These attempts largely failed and had the resulting unintended consequence of expediting family reunification, which drastically increased the settlement rate and changed the nature of Muslim overture’s in France from temporary to permanent. The continuing economic woes continue to fuel the growing anti-Islamic sentiment resulting in the rise of the extreme right wing National Front party, led by Jean le Pen. Focusing their platform on the issue of national identity and Muslim immigration they were able to apply pressure on the more mainstream parties to curb their positions towards a more nationalist position. Their influence perhaps peaked in 2002 when Jean le Pen led the FN into the second and final round of the presidential election. In spite of being soundly defeated, the message sent by the right resonated through the entire French infrastructure and greatly shapes immigration politics in France to this day.

The growing opposition from right wing parties following the economic crash of 1973 highlights a strong relationship between France’s economic standing and the public perception of immigrants, namely Muslim immigrants. As it was previously observed, when economic prosperity was at an all time high there was little to no opposition was felt against immigration, even after Algeria won its independence in1962. As the economy collapsed, however, the need for external labor to continue promoting growth morphed into resentment toward immigrant labor in the face of high French-national unemployment. Similar trends took place throughout the world, indicating high validity to the claim that perception of and response to Muslim immigration in the latter half of the twentieth century was tainted largely by worldwide economic downturn. This reactionary effect also has taken place in the face of national security threats, primarily following the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States. At a time when Islamaphobia was at an all time high the National Front was able to garner enough votes to defeat the main French left wing party, the Socialist Party, and advance to the run-off stage. This was trend was also evidenced following the recent 2012 shootings in Tolouse where a Muslim gunman shot and killed seven civilians. In the wake of this tragedy, the heinous ignorance of the right was on full display during an impassioned speech by current National Front leader Marine le Pen:

“‘How many Mohamed Merahs arrive in France every day, in the boats and planes full of immigrants?’ she asked, paying little heed to the fact that the alleged gunman was born and raised in France” (French Right Focuses on ‘Radical’ Muslims, Ryan).

In the face of mass public panic the right spun the security threat to “misrepresent complex issues such as religion, immigration, and integration” (Ryan). This immoral endeavor in instrumentalism is but a mere ploy by right wing party leaders to garner votes and popularity through the manipulation of ear. These observed and repeated trends, largely omitted by Fetzer and Cope, indicate a highly reactionary nature of immigration policy in France toward Muslims, providing basis for the claim that political, social, and economic context play a tremendous role in the process, not merely the church-state relationship.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and Laicité as Applied to Muslim Integration:

The French concept of equality between members of the Republic is a tremendous step towards achieving a society that is equally just and diligent to all its residents. It, like many aspects of French society, however, have buckled in response to incoming waves of Muslim immigrants. Previously, France had partially assured equality of citizenship by refusing to collect census data on the grounds of ethnicity or religious background. However, due to the growing resentment and influence of the anti-Islamist right there has been a push by the government to implement “the introduction of statistical tools to evaluate the importance of the phenomenon of ‘undocumented'” (Garcia) and to assist in determining a course of action for dealing with this issue, something that will ultimately have a large effect on Muslim immigrants and their families. This action is similar to those undertaken in the United States following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, when the state implemented various initiates such as the Absconder Apprehension Initiative to isolate and profile Muslim immigrants with the intent of deportation.

This itself contradicts the French concept of egalité, but the government hopes it will prove effective. Currently there are an estimated 7.2 million immigrants in France, which comprises of 11.1% of the population, with an estimated 4-5 million of these being Muslims. They rank sixth in the world in terms of immigration, with a relatively high proportion of immigrants to total population. It is estimated that around 1/3 of the French population is of some sort of “foreign” descent, making for a sizable chunk of the country. In spite of this, immigration rates into France are lower than in most other countries, and with the recent push from right wing parties to decrease it ever further, these numbers may drop even further in the coming years. Nonetheless, the ever growing tension that has arisen has made this topic extremely relevant in the lives of the French today. As stated by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, “Our system of integration is working [less and less], because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school” (Samuel).

The trending increase of immigration in the latter half of the twentieth century also resulted in conflict over what exactly it meant to be a citizen in France. The country’s immigration system has maintained a relatively open policy, but once you enter assimilation is heavily emphasized. This makes the role of the naturalization process crucial, because it establishes the line between citizen and non-citizen, an all too pivotal concept for Muslims attempting to attain equal status and treatment. France adheres to the principle of jus soli, or right of soil, as opposed to the jus sanguini, or right of blood, of countries such as Germany. This reduces the importance of lineage, but still imposes an obstacle in attaining citizenship for Muslim immigrants. This was especially the case during the implementation of the Pasqua laws, which required that foreign born children apply to attain majorité upon turning eighteen years old, as opposed to non-foreign born children who were simply granted it by virtue of birth. These additional steps stemmed from and resulted in increased animosity towards and from Muslims, who were not given the egalité of citizenship they had sought after.

The rise anti-Islamist sentiment in France has altered the landscape of French politics. The arguably racist National Front has led an assault on immigration with the claims that in France could potentially become a primarily Muslim state, to the chagrin of many modern French citizens. This has led to a fundamental contradiction in their application of the concept of fraternité, which is meant to apply to all citizens and residents regardless of cultural, ethnic, or religious background by ousting them as outsiders and redefining the concept of a French Republic member. The resulting affect is that during Sarkozy’s tenure “the original concept of fraternité has been displaced in favour of a cultural predisposition to democracy — a shift that, along with France’s new immigration policy and longstanding opposition to Turkey’s candidacy for membership of the EU, coincides with a resurgence of Islamophobia” (Emery, p. 115). Proponents of more stringent and restrictive immigration policy fear that if Turkey, a primarily Muslim nation with a population larger than that of France, would join the European Union that there would be a continent wide influx of Muslim immigrants that they feel would threaten France’s national identity.

This shows that a large portion of modern day France is only in favor of egalité, fraternité, and liberté as long as the it remains a primarily Catholic and Caucasian state. This rigid and archaic stance will prove troublesome as globalization continues to increase multiculturalism across Europe and the world. Ultimately the French electorate will have to decide which they would rather compromise: their concept of fraternité among any and all members of the Republic, or its current Western Catholic Caucasian national identity.

One of the most essential components of France’s concept of liberté is the religious freedom which all French residents are granted, and their strict adherence separation of church and state, or laicité. Proponents of this have argued that “it is laicité that has allowed the public schools to be the melting pot in which, through the alchemy of education, differences vanish so the nation can emerge” (Gonod; Fetzer and Soper, p. 62). This runs counter to Fetzer and Soper’s concluding assertion that a religious state language and a general recognition of religion in politics leads to the most accommodating form of government towards Muslim immigrants.

In the past decade the most widely discussed piece of legislation concerning this matter was one that prohibited the wearing of religious attire in public settings such as schools. This was commonly referred to as the ‘burqa ban’ due to the perception that it was aimed at Muslim immigrants wearing hijabs. Many have argued that this is not the case, however, since the law prohibits all religious attire from being worn, including symbols from other major religions such as Christian crosses or Jewish yamakas. Furthermore, this has had a galvanizing affect of the women’s rights movement which has argued that these have for a long time oppressed Muslim women. As opposed to before the law was instituted, now “young Muslim women at state schools are French women, with the rights and independence and respect that accrue to French women… [and are] no longer subject to the rules of their brothers and fathers and the religious extremists in their communities” (Sheridan). While this is true to a certain extent, we must consider the true meaning of religious freedom to understand whether or not progress is actually being made.

There are two main types of liberty: negative liberty (freedom from) and positive liberty (freedom to).  In other words “negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints” while “positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes”(Carter, Stanford). France’s so called ‘burqa ban’ has been successful in achieving negative liberty, but by sacrificing positive liberty. While young Muslim women are no longer bound by the constraints of their religions, they have also been stripped of the ability to openly express their religion. Although this is truly an equal law since it is equally applicable to those of all religions, it has ultimately compromised the religious freedom of the individual by placing a greater emphasis on the concept of the Republic.  Those backing the proposal have claimed that “in crafting the bill, officials have sought to avoid singling out Muslims” (France to Vote on Veil Band). Even so it is clear to see that the effect it has had has been primarily on Muslims.

During the initial ruling to uphold the band of “ostentatious religious insignia” in schools various key political figures opposed the ban, saying that it contradicted many long standing French ideals. The First Lady of France, Madam Mitterand, expressed strong disapproval of the Ministry’s ruling in stating that “if today, after two hundred years of the revolution the secular schools cannot welcome all religions in France, [then] that means there has been a set back” (Seljuq, par. 5). In doing so the French have extended the scope of the ‘state’ to truly greater level, by asserting that its citizens to some degree an extension of the state itself, creating a more organic government that challenges former notions of individual liberties and religious freedom.

Due to this seemingly paradoxical trend is has been noted that “the French state is not in fact fully committed to a strict separation of church and state; the Catholic Church won important concessions in the early part of the twentieth century in the area of public and private education” (Fetzer and Soper, p. 19). This points to a fundamental misattribution to the claim made by Fetzer and Soper that the church-state relationship is the main variable determining a state’s interaction with Islam, in that the implementation of French laicité has not been fully effective in assuring equal treatment, in spite of its lofty ideals.

There are a plethora of advantages, both economic and cultural, to promoting immigration into France as with any other country. It fuels globalization as different cultures and societies blend together to form a more diverse and assimilated international community. It falls in line with the European Union’s concept of “free movement of people” and reinforces the idea of a borderless continent. Increased immigration also tends to lead to economic diversity as well as a wider variety of goods, assets, exchanges, and services. Most importantly it enriches any culture by introducing new components of various others to produce finer music, greater art, more prosperous living, and an overall more diverse perspective on life. Although France will surely continue to face issues in implementing legislation that allows true freedom and equality to be given to all citizens, residents, and immigrants, hopefully the increased multiculturalism will lead to tangible economic results that will generate a more favorable will among the French electorate toward Muslim immigrants and their plight for religious integration and accommodation of cultural and religious practices.

France, like most other European countries today, faces a daunting task in the face of an increasingly globalized Europe: whether or not or how much to incorporate new members of its society, independent of cultural or ethnic background. A strong push from the right has shown that many in France believe that an isolationist approach centered around strict assimilation would be more effective, demanding that France be removed from the Schengen agreement and that more measures be taken to sure up the borders and ultimately preserve France’s national identity. This has come at the cost, however, of the founding principles of the Fifth Republic: Egalité, Fraternité, Liberté, and Laicité. Egalité has been challenged by introducing selective statistical analysis that differentiates members of the state according to their ethnicity or race, something that had previously been entirely prohibited and that deliberately targets Muslims.

It has been shown that a large segment of the French population feels that fraternité simply does not apply to their Muslim counterparts, and that France must take decisive actions in their international relations policy to preserve its national identity. Lastly, liberté and laicité have been restricted by stripping citizens of their right to wear religious symbols openly, a move that sacrifices positive liberty and individual freedom in favor of negative freedom and the concept of a more comprehensive Republic. Although there are clearly countless positive benefits to increased immigration, the French electorate will ultimately have to decide if they are willing to put their antiquated notion of their national identity behind them to preserve the founding principles that united them to begin with.

Fetzer and Soper Reassessed:

            Turning back to Fetzer and Soper’s assertions about the fundamental relationship between the French state and church and the growing Muslim immigrant population we see that although it has indeed played a tremendous role in shaping the country’s general response, it is simply not the only variable at play.

Fetzer and Soper’s argument about French integration of Muslims falters by primarily focusing on particular cases of the accommodation of Muslim religious practices in public schools that affect an extremely small percentage of the Muslim population in France. The controversy on the hijab has to be tempered by the fact that the use of the burqa does not represent the entirety of French Muslims, and that the move to ban it serves to stigmatize them and their cultural practices. According to Al Jazeera’s Youssouffa “French Muslims say less than only 2,000 women use the veil and are seen as ultra-orthodox minority and do not represent the whole community” (France Vote on Veil Ban). The perceived clash of traditional Muslim religious practices and Western liberal ideals of freedom of religion therefore are not inherently oppositional, as many Muslims have found ways to practice Islam without infringing on France’s conception of laicité.

This sheds light on an even more interesting finding about Muslims in France. According to an article” France counts the largest Muslim minority of any European country. But only a portion – about 10 percent, or the same proportion as among Catholics – are practising, according to  Muslim associations” (France Enacts Street Prayer Ban). This speaks even further to the fact that France’s implementation of a system of assimilation is effectively serving to incorporate Muslim’s ability to practice religion at an equal rate to that of the dominant Catholic population. This speaks to a relatively high level of equality of treatment with regards to religion, although as our findings have shown even this is not an area where France is free of fault.

To truly understand the perspective of Muslims in France, self-reports can be very telling. Recent surveys have shown that 26% of Muslims feel ostracized in France due to “a lack of access to education and jobs” (European Muslims Feel ‘Ostracized’). Although obviously not an ideal mark, it ranks below both the UK and Germany, whose Muslim populations reported 29% and 39% in terms of feeling ostracized, respectively. France also fared far better in terms of the percentage of Muslims who reported feeling integrated into society as opposed to the UK and Germany, rating at 46% as opposed to 35% in Germany and a meager 20% in the UK. Fetzer and Soper argued strongly that Great Britain’s approach of multiculturalism was much more effective in accommodating for Muslims, yet European Muslims themselves disagree (European Muslims Feel ‘Ostracized’).

The problem instead may lie in the perceptions of Muslims by their Caucasian Catholic counterparts. Surveys have shown that “while nearly half of French Muslims, 46 per cent, said they felt integrated, only 22 per cent of the French public said they felt the same about the Muslims living in their country” (European Muslims Feel ‘Ostracized’). This shows a large disparity in the perceived integration of Muslims, which harkens back to the influence of the National Front and its attempts to distort the image of Muslims through initiatives such as the burqa ban. Beyond anything their aim is to misrepresent rather than inform, which if successful can only breed increased intolerance and growing hostilities, and unfortunate truth about the state of politics in France with regard to Muslim immigration.

Where Fetzer and Soper’s argument regains traction is in their assertion that lack of access to education and employment, as echoed by the self-reports, has been a large issue for Muslims, along with the building of mosques and the ability to worship freely. The latter has especially come into play as the recent ban on prayer mats in public places was enacted. This “street-prayer ban . . . has highlighted France’s problems assimilating its 5-million-strong Muslim community, which lacks prayer space” (France Enacts Street Prayer Ban). Even more telling than this, however, is their relative inability to construct mosques. According to Fetzer and Soper “France has a mosque or prayer room for every 3,333 Muslims. French followers of Islam are thus much less likely to be able to find prayer facilities than are their coreligionists n Britain” (p. 87). The inability to convert old buildings into new worship centers makes it extremely arduous for a religion relatively new to the region to establish itself institutionally, giving credence to the resource mobilization theory outlined in Muslims and the State in Britain, France, and Germany.  This trend also highlights the overwhelming tendency of “French political elites and policy makers opposed separate Islamic institutions because this arrangement would violate the state’s ideological commitment to integrating individual outsiders into the French political culture” (Fetzer and Soper, p. 14).

“Muslims in France are organized into central political and religious organizations” (Fetzer and Soper, p. 10) yet Muslims in France have had comparatively little success in attaining concessions as opposed to those of Great Britain. What this points to is the un-adaptive nature of the centralized French Fifth Republic. The UK may embrace an approach of multiculturalism and recognition of religion in politics, but even more importantly than this it provides channels through its political framework by which minority groups can attain concessions at a local level and progress that more easily translates into national success. It is not Great Britain’s officially established church that enables it to deal with religion more effectively, but rather the intersection of a decentralized government that permits local accommodation and a system that provides proper funding for Islamist institutions such as private schools. The recognition of religion may allow it to enact such laws, but without input at the local level the channels for such progress simply would not be available.

In contrast “the political concentration of power in France . . . means that Muslims must take their case to national political institutions if they are going to be effective” (Fetzer and Soper, p. 11). Muslims in France are not afforded the opportunity to make incremental gains towards their goals as they are in the UK, and they exhaust so much political energy and so many resources at the national level fighting for the instrumentally symbolic and intentionally incendiary issues proposed by the right wing that they are unable to garner any traction otherwise. This is the National Front’s most effective way to undermine Muslim progress in France. Ultimately France’s Achilles heel proves to be the combination of factors that lead to its uncompromising and un-adaptive nature: state centralization of power, ideological beliefs of assimilation and republicanism, lack of funding and resources for schools, and the anticlerical nature of the government through laicité.

Through the framework postulated by Fetzer and Soper in Muslims and the State in Britain, France, and Germany various troubling aspects of the integration process of Muslims in French society have been identified. Their claims that funding for Muslim resources such as private schools are lacking, that access to places of worship and ability to gather and or/mobilize are limited, and that many of their religious practices are restricted have been substantiated. Where their argument falters, however, is in drawing a single causational link between these indicators and the church-state relationship in France. As has been demonstrated, the concept of laicité and of strict separation of church and state plays a pivotal role in French politics, but it is decidedly not the single variable upon which Muslim religious integration has varied. It is rather, the intersectionality of the church state relationship, the tendency toward reactionary and instrumental politics, the limited funding for Islamic institutions, and the centralized nature of the state, and all the ensuing clashes between Muslim immigrants and the French guiding principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité, and laicité. Muslims in France have been under-resourced, under-voiced, under-privileged, misrepresented and misunderstood. Fueled by the anti-Islamist fervor of the right, French politics has been propelled into an un-adaptive state of non-compromise. They refuse to yield their antiquated national identity in the face of an increasingly globalized world, and in doing so compromise the very ideals upon which they were founded.


Works Cited:

  1. Seljuq, Afan. “Cultural Conflicts: North African Immigrants in France.” Cultutal Conflicts: North African Immigrants in France; The International Journal for Peace Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.
  2. Emery, M. “Europe, Immigration and the Sarkozian Concept of Fraternite.” French Cultural Studies 21.2 (2010): 115-29. Print.
  3. Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.
  4. Garcia, Antonio. “Combien D’immigrés Clandestins En France?” RFI. N.p., 13 Apr. 2006. Web. <;.
  5. Ryan, Yasmine. “French Right Focuses on ‘radical’ Muslims – Features – Al Jazeera English.” French Right Focuses on ‘radical’ Muslims – Features – Al Jazeera English. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
  6. “European Muslims Feel ‘isolated’ – Europe – Al Jazeera English.” Al Jazeera English. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.
  7. “France Enacts Street Prayer Ban – Europe – Al Jazeera English.” Al Jazeera English. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
  8. “France to Vote on Veil Ban – Europe – Al Jazeera English.” Al Jazeera English. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
  9. Samuel, Henry. “Nicolas Sarkozy Appeals to Far-Right Saying ‘too Many Immigrants’ in France.” The Telegraph. N.p., n.d. Web.
  10. Sheridan, Greg. “France’s Burka Ban a Boost for Equality.” The Australian. N.p., n.d. Web.



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This entry was posted on March 13, 2013 by in Academic Writing.
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