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Islam Became A 'Problem' In France When Muslims Became French

For decades, France did well in accommodating the religious needs of Muslims — on the condition they went back to their country of origin. Now, demands to express one's faith are often labeled: separatism.

A march against Islamphobia in Paris
A march against Islamphobia in Paris
Hicham Benaissa


PARIS — There is a new bill before the French National Assembly that calls for "reinforcing the respect of the principles of the Republic," and fight against Islamist "separatism." We already know that among the key aims of current amendments would be to restrict — in the name of secularism — the expression of religious affiliation within different sectors of social life. It may apply to those who work in public services, hospitals and universities, and could impose the principle of religious neutrality on all public sector employees.

The strategy of combining laïcité (a strict French concept of secularism) with France's principle of neutrality is not new. However, the current bill could make people think that the more religious convictions are neutralized, the better one can defend the original 1905 law establishing the separation of Church and State.

A 2004 report by center-right politician François Baroin, entitled "For a new secularism," contributed significantly to establishing the consensus on which the major political views of the future will have been based ever since. Baroin did this by specifically favoring an expansive vision of the principle of neutrality from the 1905 law. This came well before the terrorists attacks that have struck France in recent years. The consensus that has been established is as follows: Secularism would overcome a new problem due to the "new" presence in France of an Islam asserting itself in different areas of social life.

But let's ask ourselves: Is the question of religious expression practiced by a certain number of Muslims in France really "new"? No. We know, for example, that in the 1970s, companies such as Renault or Peugeot set up places of worship for Muslim workers because they saw them as a strong element of social regulation.

As for politicians, Paul Dijoud, secretary of state for immigrant workers from 1974 to 1976, said: "Companies will be invited to set up places where prayer can be practiced and timetables corresponding to the schedule of these prayers. During the Ramadan fast, companies should, as some already do, arrange working conditions compatible with the physical condition of Muslim workers. Finally, company managers must be attentive to the need for cafeterias to allow the Koranic rules involving food to be respected."

If it seems obvious that this kind of talk would cause a scandal today, the question should be: Why has that which did not seem to be a "problem" at the time become one today? In other words, what is really new about the current situation?

This lie consisted of making people believe that the presence of Muslims on French soil was temporary.

The political decisions that characterize the fate of Muslims in France throughout the 1960s and 1970s is that of the myth of return. A "collective lie," said the great Franco-Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad. This lie consisted of believing and making people believe that the presence of Muslims on French soil was temporary, that their fate could only lead them to return to take their rightful place in their homeland.

The myth of return was so strongly inscribed in the minds of the time that a whole series of political initiatives were created: the Teachings of Language and Culture of Origin (ELCO) and aid for return, with the allocation in 1977 of a stipend to do so. There was even the forced return of North African workers to their native land, as unsuccessfully envisioned by former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Here is what we must therefore keep in mind: If allocating prayer rooms or arranging working conditions was not a problem then, it was because the presence of Islam on French soil was perceived as temporary. Let's put it another way: If the religious expressions of Muslim men and women are perceived as problematic today, it is because we know that they are here to stay. Islam gradually became a "problem" as Islam became French.

At the same time, the social profiles of Muslims in France have diversified. The first generations of Muslim immigrants, who came mainly from the rural and working classes, and were largely illiterate, were assigned to the most difficult work tasks in France. Nevertheless, they formed a block of workers who were absolutely necessary for the functioning of the French industrial system. Their low-cost labor served the interests of employers and growth policies. Under these conditions, the development of the religious aspect seemed to be the least that could be done.

On a Renault assembly line in 1975 — Photo:© Berretty/Rapho/Eyedea/Musée de l'histoire de l'immigration

Now, the context is one of mass unemployment and the children of Muslim workers, born on French soil, have irreversibly distanced themselves from their original conditions, if only through school, but also, for some, through work. So much so that they have risen to positions of responsibility that were inaccessible to their parents' generations.

We have arrived at the following paradox: When the children of immigrants cross the class barrier, they emancipate themselves from the economic and social conditions assigned to their cultural and religious "origins."

Today, there is a management class within France's Muslim population, asked to remain in the symbolic place that has traditionally been reserved for it. The tool of secularism, reduced to its sole principle of neutrality, appears, in these circumstances, as a powerful legal means by which to render invisible the growing diversity of the French population, including its religious diversity.

This is an old question, but it is one that is being seriously renewed today: Can the Republic continue to think of itself as reproducing the "same," only citizens who are identical to one another?

*Hicham Benaissa is a sociologist at Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique.

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