Integration or Islamophobia? France Fights Islamist Radicalism in a Postcolonial Era

 /  Oct. 18, 2020, 1:29 p.m.

French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019

On October 5, French President Emmanuel Macron adopted a new approach to France’s fight against Islamist radicalization and “separatism.” France’s attempts at gaining control of Islamist radicalism precede Macron; since the 1980s, multiple administrations have made efforts to fight extremism. From importing foreign imams to sending French imams to Morocco for training, none of these efforts have been successful. But Macron is determined to change that precedent.

Acknowledging both the immediate danger of Islamist terrorism and the faults of French colonialism, Macron took a cautious tone during his Friday speech, advocating for the integration of Muslim communities into the broader scope of French society. He denounced the “ghettoization of [the French] republic” whereby Muslim immigrants are trapped in poor communities, allowing radicalism to thrive. Careful not to criticize Islam as a whole, he expressed support for the growth of what he describes as a peaceful, non-violent Islam— a French Islam.

At first glance, Macron’s calls for integration may seem innocuous, especially when considering more hostile programs France has previously undertaken like mosque surveillance. But even while calling for the greater integration of Muslims into French society, Macron is unable to avoid a martial tone, drawing criticism from French-Muslims like Chems-Eddine Hafiz, who accuse Macron of creating a blanket approach that involves all Muslims, when in fact, “[the] question of ‘separatism’ does not concern all Muslims in any way”. 

Despite all of his caution, Macron finds himself walking a delicate line between integration and Islamophobia. This precarious balance is nothing new to French society: the tensions between Macron’s approach to integration and criticisms from French Muslims are an extension of the complicated history of secularism, colonialism, and racism. 

Religious Repression, Racism, and the Secular State: The Legacy of French Colonialism

French colonialism has a firm grasp on much of the formation of the modern world, but especially so on the African continent. From the late seventeenth century onwards, France has held numerous colonial possessions in Africa. While possession over some colonies has been either intermittent or short-term, some of the oldest French colonies included those in the Maghreb (primarily Algeria) and much of West Africa. While France does not collect official racial statistics, it is widely known that this is where many French Muslims originate. 

Islam in the Maghreb and West African regions preceded French presence in Africa by centuries, but it did not prevent the French from imposing their own way of life onto those indigenous regions. A hallmark of French colonialism was destabilizing and uprooting local religious institutions and imposing the French language and practices, all while suppressing pre-existing cultures. 

French settlers in Africa also frequently weaponized elements of French political society as they colonized new regions. One of the most prominent of these elements was the French concept of laïcité, which originally referred to a 1905 statute declaring the strict separation of church and state. During the French occupation of the Maghreb and West Africa (1830-1962), colonizers upheld laïcité not to ensure a secular state, but rather applied the concept selectively in order to suppress local religious institutions and maintain an iron fist on newly colonized populations. 

Laïcité was and is also intertwined with French racism toward Africans, which sociologist Valérie Orange expands on in her journal article Laïcités dans le monde et approches plurielles des discriminations (2017). As Orange brings to light, laïcité was the extension of a repressive colonial regime following the end of the second French colonial empire. 

Following the Algerian War in 1962, many Algerian men immigrated to France to find work as the French economy suffered a post-war labor shortage. This era ushered in a long legacy of African segregation in France, as migrant Maghrebi-born laborers were cast into housing establishments in industrial suburbs like Seine-Saint-Denis and Yvelines. These suburbs subsequently became the settling place of their families after the Family Reunification Act of 1976 allowed for the families of the migrant workers to relocate and reunite on French soil.

As the workers and their families settled into French society, they faced a similar oppression to that which they had suffered under French occupation. Aspects of their culture—especially with regard to religious practices—were openly criticized by French society, with notable intolerance expressed toward hijabs and other Islamic head coverings. While the French occupation had initially used laïcité to keep a hold on its colonial possessions, over time, laïcité crystallized into a logical façade for a racist and oppressive state.

French Muslims also face stark economic inequality; the suburbs in which they reside are impoverished in comparison to the wealthy cities they surround. The people living in these suburbs have been constantly subject to institutional disadvantage, so much so that the word for suburb in French, banlieue, is commonly associated with low-income housing projects and poverty traps. According to a statistical report published as recently as 2017, these suburbs are some of the most economically vulnerable in the entire country, and are facing poverty at an intensified rate. This vast inequality is perhaps best illustrated by one of the poorest banlieues, Seine-Saint-Denis, with a poverty rate of 28.6 percent in 2014, having increased 7.1 percent from 2008. In contrast, Paris had a poverty rate of 16.1 percent, having risen 2.2 percent from 2008. 

Complex Motives: A Policy for Whom?

The racist legacy of French colonialism abroad and domestic segregation created the conditions in which Macron now raises his new integrative policies. Will Macron be able to shake this imperialist legacy? 

Throughout his speech on October 5, Macron emphasized the French value of laïcité and insisted upon instilling secular values within young people. "Secularism is the cement of a united France," Macron insisted, while simultaneously criticizing right-wing extremists like Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National for targeting all Muslims in France. 

French leaders have asserted again and again that laïcité is a symbol of unity, but historically, it has been just the opposite, a tool for targeting—rather than uplifting—French Muslims. At bottom, it would be overly optimistic to claim that laïcité could still represent a united France— as recently as September, several French MPs exited parliament in protest of a student who entered the building while wearing a headscarf. 

The seeming incompatibility between laïcité and Islam is what has made the fight against radicalism so difficult in the past. In attempts to preserve laïcité, the French government has historically taken a laissez-faire approach—after all, regulating mosques is not exactly the pinnacle of state secularism. To avoid complications between the religious and the secular, France has imported imams and left them to regulate themselves, which Macron now interprets as the foundation of radical Islam in France. 

With regard to religious institutions, cultural affiliation matters: as Kamel Daoud writes, Islam that is not affiliated with France can “only reinforce communalism and work against integration because they are not French.” Macron’s proposals are primarily concerned with the issue of cultural affiliation. They would create a certificate program for French imams, prevent the formation of religious schools, and allow the state to regulate mosque funding. He even discussed the introduction of Arabic instruction in French schools. 

Insofar as an orthodox definition of laïcité is concerned, these proposals are certainly not secular, but they would give Islam a permanent place in French society, allowing for both French and Muslim cultural identities to coexist within the French state. Prior to October 5, Macron had raised points of revision of the original 1905 laïcité statute that creates the dissonance between religious and secular. Whether his current proposals pass would be dependent on whether a majority of other French politicians agree with those revisions. 

However, Macron’s plans for a French Islam also coincide with calls from right-wing politicians that France is undergoing an ensauvagement— in other words, France is “turning savage.” (Ensauvagement is a word heavy with undertones of colonialism and racism.) Macron’s calls to fight against radicalism at the same time that far-right politicians throw around xenophobic dogwhistles and point to false claims of increased crime muddy his professed intentions to support Muslim integration into French society. 

Looking ahead, Macron is up for reelection in 2022. At present, there is a very real threat to Macron’s incumbency: the rise of the Rassemblement National (RN) and far-right xenophobic sentiment. Despite Macron’s decisive win in the 2017 runoff election against the then-Front National leadership of Le Pen, the RN has developed a serious presence in French politics as of recent years: Macron and Le Pen are in close rivalry for the 2022 election according to this voter intentions poll. The rise in the RN’s popularity is not unsurprising; a YouGov Poll showed that in 2016, 47 percent of French respondents said that they agree with the statement: “There are so many foreigners living around here, it doesn’t feel like home any more.”

If Macron answers far-right calls for a crackdown on crime, and if these proposals pass into law and perform well, it could provide him support against his most prominent rival, Le Pen, in the re-election campaign. However, there are a couple of uncertainties for Macron’s plans for Muslim integration into French society. First, it is not clear whether his plans will gain support from all, or even a majority, of Parliament. In lending his ear to far-right cries against Islamist radicalism, Macron alienates left-leaning members of his party, if they were not already alienated by his right-wing economic policies. 

Second, it is even more unclear whether this plan is a genuine attempt to reverse France’s current track record of abandoning its Muslim residents, or, as Chems-Eddine Hafiz of the Grande Mosquée puts it, a “gimmicky measure” for his re-election campaign. While integration is far from a far-right rallying cry, Macron’s focus on far-right concerns makes it difficult to discern where exactly the president’s priorities are and what he wants accomplished. 

In the most optimistic view, the integration approach might truly be an attempt at correcting a historical wrong and helping rid France of extremism in the process. But in a more realistic light, Macron’s eyes may be floating more toward an election victory than the solution to a societal malaise. 

Driss Ettazaoui, a deputy mayor in Normandy, says that “A wide majority of Muslims [...] want a right to normality, to practice our faith without pressure.” Macron’s integration plans, already tainted by colonial era talk of an ensauvagement, offers little certainty that normality might be in the future. In the current French political milieu, integration could offer paternalism and hyper-stigmatization instead. 

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. No changes have been made to the original image, taken by @paquierjacques on Flickr, which may be found here

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Donna Son


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