“…Our country is one that has no problems with any of the world’s religions whatsoever, because they are all practised freely in our country. And to all French people of the Muslim faith, and indeed to citizens from anywhere else in the world whose religion is Islam, I should like to say to them that France is a country in which this religion, too, is freely practised.”
– Emmanuel Macron, President of France, 31st October, 2020 in an interview with Al Jazeera
Macron made the above statement during an interview with Al Jazeera in an attempt to clarify, what he characterised as “misunderstandings” about his statements towards the Muslim community. How historically accurate is it though? France is after all, a country with a history steeped in colonialism. However, that colonial history is far from over, as evidenced by the actions of the French government even over the past century towards its own Muslim population (which is the largest in Western Europe and estimated at around 5 million people) and its neo-colonialist actions in its territories and formerly colonised states.
Whenever the issue of religion comes up in France, one word is sure to enter the conversation, and that is laïcité (translated best as secularism). This term is evoked by French politicians on all sides of the political spectrum to justify the proposition or passage of laws that effectively target one particular religious minority. The principle of laïcité is tied to the passage of a law in 1905 establishing the separation of church and state. It’s important to stress that this law also guarantees the freedom to practice one’s religion while ensuring neutrality at the state level. For example, according to Article 18, religious symbols are not allowed “on public monuments or in any public place whatsoever, except for buildings used for worship, burial grounds in cemeteries, monuments and museums or exhibitions.” However, no mention is made prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in public spaces such as schools. This would come much later.
In the aftermath of World War I, a war in which up to 100,000 Muslim soldiers died fighting on the French side, France brought over young men from its North African colonies to provide cheap labour to build up its economy and replace the high numbers of men who had been killed. These men performed the jobs that most French people didn’t want to do, for example, laying railroad track and working in mines. They earned low wages and lived in crowded tenements on the outskirts of major cities.
During World War II, the majority of Muslims and Arabs from France’s colonies fought on the Allied side. They, in fact, made up a large portion of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French army, at a time when a large number of their white French counterparts were collaborating with the Vichy regime. The sacrifices of these soldiers from colonised African nations were little recognised by French society — going so far as to present the 1944 liberation of Paris as a “whites only” victory. By the time the Algerian War broke out in 1954, around half a million Algerians were living and working in France.
France’s fifth & current republic was established in 1958, and with it, a new constitution. Article 1 of this Constitution states that “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs,” Article 5 reinforces this by stating that “The President of the Republic oversees to the respect of the Constitution.”
Despite this new constitution promising equality, discrimination towards France’s minorities continued. This, coupled with a desire to show support for the ongoing Algerian War of Independence, led to tens of thousands of Algerians organising a peaceful demonstration in Paris on October 17, 1961. In what would later become known as the Paris Massacre of 1961, French police, led by Maurice Papon, a local prefect and known Nazi collaborator during the Vichy regime responsible for the deportation of thousands of Jews, attacked these unarmed protestors. 14,000 people were detained with thousands injured – many of whom were thrown into the river Seine – and around 400 were shot. As Yasser Louati, a French human rights and civil liberties activist and president of CJL (Justice & Freedoms For All Committee), puts it “The 1961 Paris Massacre is not an event recognised as a bloody act in the history of the republic. There is a desire to forget or underestimate what happened in October 1961.”
Intolerance wasn’t exclusively practiced by the French state, however. In the first half of the 1970s, the Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes (the Arab Workers Movement) was formed following a consensus that left-wing unions like the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Labour), one of France’s largest trade unions, failed to seriously address racism in the workplace and to make space for Algerian factory workers in their unions.
In 1976, during a period of economic decline, a new immigration law was introduced, called le droit au regroupement familial (the right to family reunification). While this law seemed favourable towards its immigrant population on the surface, allowing immigrant men to bring over their spouse and children, in actuality, it was meant to limit immigration by introducing many caveats. For example, one had to prove that they had lived a minimum of one year in France, have suitable housing for them and their family, enough financial resources and that they wouldn’t disrupt “public order.” These limitations would go on to be expanded by the introduction of another law in 2003, such as extending the minimum length of stay to two years, have stable employment making at least minimum wage and prove they have “integrated well” into French society, an ambiguous qualification.
In addition to this attempt at stifling immigration, Arabs & Africans continue to experience waves of police brutality and hate crimes. In 1983, France’s first anti-racist demonstration, the March for Equality And Against Racism, was organised by Toumi Djaidja, a young Algerian, after he suffered a near death experience from gunshot wounds inflicted by a police officer during a raid. What began as a small march in Marseille on October 15, 1983 made up of just 30 people, gained momentum over two months, with over 100,000 supporters marching to Paris, propelled by the death of Habib Grimzi, a 26-year-old Algerian vacationing in France, who was beaten and thrown off a train alive by four young Foreign Legion recruits.
The march also came at a time when Jean Marie LePen’s extreme right wing party Front Nationale (National Front) began to gain significant political presence. Their sentiments towards immigrants were not isolated and are reflected amongst members in other right-wing parties. As exemplified by Alain de Griotteray, a member of the centre-right political party, Union pour la Démocratie Française (Union for French Democracy) who penned the book “L’Immigration : Le Choc” (“The Shock of Immigration”). In a review by his party’s founder, Michel Poniatowski, Poniatowski stated that “Muslim and African immigration, on the other hand, poses a different problem” and that “this population, perhaps because it is poorly integrated and has a high percentage of unemployed, represents a potential for criminality and delinquency as well as a prison presence much higher compared to the average European in France.”
As these anti-immigrant views continued to spread, and despite President Francois Mitterand’s Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) in power, 1989 marked the year that the hijab controversy began in France when three Muslim school girls were suspended from their high school in Creil, a suburb of Paris, for refusing to take their hijabs off. This controversy greatly divided the country, with many saying that allowing the wearing of the hijab goes against France’s policy of secularism. The State Council however disagreed, pronouncing that “The freedom thus granted to pupils includes for them the right to express and manifest their religious beliefs within schools, with respect for pluralism and the freedom of others, and without compromising teaching activities, programme content and attendance requirements.” By the end of the year, Education Minister Lionel Jospin issued a statement declaring that it was up to educators, rather than the state, to decide whether the wearing of the hijab would be permitted in their classrooms. In response to this statement, a letter was written by several French “intellectuals”, and published in Le Nouvel Observateur, addressed to the Minister. In it was this especially noteworthy declaration : “ ‘Welcome all the children,’ you say. Yes. But that never meant bringing their parents’ religion into school with them as it is. To tolerate the Islamic headscarf is not to welcome a free being (in this case a young girl), it is to open the door to those who have decided, once and for all and without discussion, to make her submit. Instead of giving this young girl a space of freedom, you are telling her that there is no difference between school and her father’s house.” This declaration signifies along with laïcité, the use of a feminist argument veiled as concern for these particular Muslim girls, in a broad attempt to stifle religious expression in a particular faith.
Targeting children of immigrants continued in 1991 as former president Valery Giscard d`Estaing, member of the centre right Parti Republicain (Republican Party), called for “citizenship to be restricted to those born of French parents.” Two years later, the Méhaignerie law was introduced, more or less ending France’s Jus Soli laws that granted birth right citizenship for the children of immigrants born in the country.
In 1994, the Minister of Education, Francois Bayrou, published a circular addressed to all public school officials effectively banning all “obvious religious symbols” – without stating what he considered to be obvious – but that “subtle ones” may remain. Although this action came without any semblance of legal backing, it set the stage for France’s eventual law in 2004 banning the expression of all “religious affiliation” in public educational institutions.
Prior to legally prohibiting religious symbols in schools, the French government, under the auspices of then Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, took a contradictory move to their spirit of separating church and state by founding the controversial French Council of Muslim Faith in 2003. The body was created to “collaborate with public authorities on all Islam-related questions and regulate Muslim religious activities in France”. According to Louati, this body “is a power share between a handful of federations, all of whom are related to foreign countries which include Morocco, Algeria and Turkey. They are not elected by Muslims, and have never held free, transparent and fair elections. It is not a coincidence that they do not represent Muslims before the state but the state before Muslims.” It is important to note that this very same council would go on to declare in October 2020 that “Muslims aren’t persecuted in France” at all.
Nearly 10 years after the release of Minister of Education Bayrou’s circular, the centre right President Jacques Chirac, having recently defeated LePen’s extreme right party for a 2nd presidential term, announced that he would like religious symbols to be banned in schools. The Stasi Commission, set up by Chirac, agreed with him on the principle of secularism. The Baroin Report which was put to the National Assembly a few weeks previously, addressed the “issue of wearing religious symbols in schools”. This report focused heavily on why the veil in particular is not compatible with laïcité and why it should be banned from schools. This decision, and the subsequent law passed in 2004 banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools, which Human Rights Watch said unfairly targets Muslim girls, meant that many girls felt they had to choose between their religion and education. This law goes directly against Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The year 2004 was a historical turning point. It was a departure from the original term of laïcité enshrined in the 1905 law limiting religious neutrality to the state level, to this new law imposing religious neutrality on all public educational institutions. While this law has only been introduced in schools, it could potentially be extended to demand religious neutrality in other services provided by the state. In fact, as recently as 2017, the European Court of Justice gave even French private companies permission to forbid their staff from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.
France went on to introduce a tougher and more invasive law in 2010 banning full-face coverings in public places. A law that was both condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch stating that it undermines Muslim women’s religious rights and freedoms. No doubt intentionally, this law passed at around the same time as France was occupied with the law on pension reform introduced in November 2010.
2015 would be another important year regarding the place of Muslims in French society as France began to introduce measures aimed at tackling terrorism following the Charlie Hebdo attack on January 7th, 2015 and later that year, the November Paris attacks. As a response to the latter, the then president of France, Francois Hollande, of the Parti Solialiste (Socialist Party), ramped up his bombing campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq to include Syria all the while declaring a state of emergency. The “abusive and discriminatory raids and house arrests” that occurred against its Muslim population during this state of emergency were criticised by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In fact, out of the 3,200 raids conducted and the placement of 350 to 400 people under house arrest, the counterterrorism unit eventually only launched five terrorism-related investigations. Moreover, what were at first presented as temporary emergency measures, would later be voted permanently into law in 2017.
Amidst the current deadly pandemic and continued wave of Yellow Vest protests against austerity, Macron has declared his intention to fight “Islamist separatism.” Firstly, warrantless police raids have been carried out following the assassination of Samuel Paty, to “send a message,” according to the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. Incidentally, the same minister also called for the dissolution of the Collectif Contre Islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France). In response, CCIF, an organisation that documents instances of Islamophobic hate crimes, instead dissolved itself voluntarily and is moving its activities abroad. Another Muslim non-governmental humanitarian organisation, Barakacity, was also dissolved by Darmanin under the claim that its founder made “hateful” and “antisemitic” posts on his social media account. A claim that he was only able to contest after the dissolution of his organisation. Important to note as well is that despite Macron stating in his interview with Al Jazeera that “in our country, in France, any journalist is free to speak about the French President, the Government, the political majority or minority or indeed the rest of the world,” Macron called into the Financial Times to have an article about him removed. Another article, by Politico Europe, entitled “The dangerous French religion of secularism” was also taken down with no real explanation to its author. The Editor later issued an apology claiming it didn’t meet their “editorial standards.”
Over the past few weeks, France has attempted to introduce further laws that threaten the safety of its population and severely restrict its human rights and safety. Laws that one could argue could potentially impact its whole population, but especially discriminate against its minority populations, including its Muslim one. The first one, entitled Loi de Sécurité Globale (Global Security Bill), would prohibit the filming or photographing of police unless all identifying features are blurred. If caught breaking this law, violators risk a fine of up to 45,000 euros and one year in prison. This includes anyone, even journalists fulfilling their duties. This law has been condemned by various groups, including Amnesty International and the Paris-based group, Defender of Rights.
A newer law that is being brought to the French Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly) proposes setting up internment camps for French citizens accused of “radicalisation”. Though not mentioned directly in the title, the “radicalisation” it seems to aim to tackle is that of “Islamist radicalisation.” This is stated in its preamble : “While Islamist terrorism has claimed nearly 250 victims in France in just 5 years, the authorities are slow to measure the extent of this phenomenon.” What is also important to note is that no definition has been given for what constitutes someone who has been “radicalised”.
Looking to the future, one thing seems certain, if these two laws mentioned above pass, it could pave the way for even worse legislation, all done in the fight to uphold both laïcité and tackle “Islamist separatism.” Taking into account France’s record with its Muslim population even just over the past century, we can’t entirely dismiss fears that the situation could dramatically worsen.