French Muslims: a History of Incomplete Citizenship

French Muslims: a History of Incomplete Citizenship- Dr Andrea Bila


Economic crisis of the early 1970s, growing unemployment that hit hard mainly the low-skilled working class immigrants and eventually laws restricting immigration voted to stop the influx of no longer needed foreign labour, changed the way the immigrants from the countries of the former French colonial empire were perceived by the public. Populations of Maghrebi origin were often framed in the political and media discourse as having been unable to integrate into the French society (Brouard & Tiberj 2005). This was so on account of their ethnic and cultural identity as well as their religious affiliation, using unemployment, poor academic achievement and delinquency rate as evidence (Muxel 1988). As Bertossi (2007) remarks, while in the 1980s, the notion of integration still referred to a process by which foreigners became citizens, at the end of the 1990s, this notion no longer concerned foreigners but their descendants who were already French citizens.

Noiriel (2007:656) posits that by virtue of a semantic shift media frequently frame issues related to hardship and class conflict are as related to ethnicity and religion:


“Journalists who favour ethnic vocabulary are the first to internalise the class criteria. This is the main constant of public discourse on immigration throughout history. Most often, it is a discriminatory discourse against the poor that dares not speak its name […]. When the social dimension is forgotten, stereotypes can operate virtually on its own because the problems which are due to poverty, unemployment etc., are attributed to origin, religion, nationality.”


Though North African immigrant populations have for years been socioeconomically disadvantaged, religion seems to be an equally important factor of discriminating and biased views. Islam is a major religion of this population and negative stereotypes (such as bigotry, self-segregation, oppression of women, etc.) spread about it lead to stigmatising attitudes against their descendants even if they were born in France and held French nationality – [b]ecause they are Muslims, the new citizens would not be citizens like the others” (Bertossi 2007: 4).

Accusations of non-integration into the mainstream society that French Muslims face is not a new phenomenon, as in the past, other immigrant groups was suspected of an inability to integrate into the French society. Such was the case, for example, of another religious group – Jews, though today considered well integrated. It would seem that the state’s treatment of French Muslim populations is almost identical to that of French Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries (Benbassa 2005). Muslims, similarly to Jews, are expected to adopt the ‘French way of life’, discontinue ties with their parents’ homeland; moreover, authorities require reforms of Islam even though “it is not at all part of their competences within the framework of the separation of the Church and the State” (Benbassa 2005: 66). The parallel drawn between these two religious communities and their journey suggests that integration of Muslims into the French society is in no way compromised.

The historian also explains the role played by associations of immigrants in the integration process. During the first four decades of the twentieth century, Jewish community – which counted about 200,000 individuals – was concentrated mostly in two Paris neighbourhoods (Le Marais and Belleville) and most of its members were affiliated with homeland associations: “There were some two hundred of these associations in 1930, not to mention hundreds of small synagogues where immigrants continued to practice according to the customs of their home region” (Benbassa 2005: 64). These associations “not only dispensed mutual assistance, they marked out the way for integration”; strong attachment to their origins did not prevent the Jewish immigrants and their descendants from “becoming French citizens in their own right and serving France” (Ibid.).

Associative networks established in the second half of the 1980s focusing on promotion of equality and human rights, strove to play a similar role in the case of young people of North African descent (Lapeyronnie 1987, Leveau 1992). These networks de facto replaced the school and traditional salaried professions of the 1970s in their role in the integration of immigrants: They […] form[ed] a secondary labour and employment market for these young people, favour[ed] a specific professional integration by enabling them to become civil servants of the welfare state, and thus contributed to the creation of the petty bourgeoisie of social workers of North African origin” (Baillet 2001: 100). By giving visibility to the Arab Muslim activists operating at local or national level and oftentimes enabling their social and political rise, the new forms of collective action encouraged the emergence of an activist elite. The recognition and social mobility that resulted from it, however, applied only at individual level and did not extend to the whole population (Wihtol de Wenden  1997, Baillet 2001). As a result, these activists’ social or political success (e.g. through activism in support of an association) was often accompanied by feelings of guilt or betrayal with regard to the community: “By entrusting representatives of immigration with managerial tasks, the French government places them in a contradiction difficult to live with as their own integration results from the non-integration of those who come from the same world as they do” (Beaud 2000: 143).

Categorization of these activists as “representatives of their community” (Beaud 2000: 141) earned many of them accusations of communautarisme – living withdrawn from society, in ethnic and religious enclaves. It was even more if they were involved in campaigning for the religious rights of Muslims (Muslim plots in cemeteries, Muslim chaplains in prisons and hospitals, etc.); they would be stigmatised and considered ‘fundamentalists’, even if they stressed their adherence to Republican principles (Ibid.). These misconceptions about Muslims and Islam are, however, being continually dismissed by scientific research[1] as totally ungrounded. International Crisis Group report (2006: 22) dismisses these charges: “The model of a Muslim enclave is an imposed, not chosen construct, and the vision of a Muslim population under Islamist control and feeding a project of breaking with the French society is a myth.”

Politicians, however, resort to the same practices when it comes to their electoral objectives: “Communautarisme is the interpretative framework adopted by both left and right-wing political parties. This translates primarily into campaigns led by elected officials and candidates to win the hearts of community leaders based on a fairly typical logic of cronyism” (International Crisis Group 2006: 24).

By favouring an identity-based approach to integration and promoting the national identity as the universal cure-all and a bulwark against communautarisme, the state compromised the social and political integration of young Muslims. Maintaining this status quo might lead to their further marginalisation and alienation. Rather than insisting that these populations erased their cultural and religious specificities, the authorities should encourage measures aimed at eradicating discrimination and inequalities. As it is precisely discriminations and their inferior status that prevent Muslim populations from fully enjoying their citizenship and feeling as a part of the nation.




Baillet, D. 2001. Militants d’origine maghrébine et intégration. Sud/Nord, 14,(1), pp. 91-103.

Beaud, S. 2000. “Paroles de militants “beurs”. Notes sur quelques contradictions d’une mobilisation politique.” Gèneses, 40, pp. 131-143.

Benbassa, E. 2005. Juifs et Musulmans : le modèle républicain renégocié. Mouvements, no 38,(2), 60-67.

Bertossi, C., 2007. Les Musulmans, la France, l’Europe: contre quelques faux-semblants en matière d’intégration. Paris: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung/Ifri.

Brouard, S. and Tiberj, V. 2005. Français comme les autres: Enquête sur les citoyens d’origine maghrébine, africaine et turque. Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques.

International Crisis Group. 2006. La France face à ses musulmans: émeutes, jihadisme et dépolitisation. Rapport Europe N°172. [Online]. [Accessed on 30 October 2017]. Available from :

Lapeyronnie D. 1987. Assimilation, mobilisation et action collective chez les jeunes de la seconde génération de l’immigration maghrébine. Revue française de sociologie, 28(2), pp. 287-318.

Leveau, R. 1992. Les associations musulmanes. Projet, 231, pp.78-80.

Muxel, A. 1988. Les attitudes socio-politiques des jeunes issus de l’immigration en région parisienne. Revue française de science politique, 38(6), pp. 925-940.

Noiriel, G. 2007. Immigration, antisémitisme et racisme en France (XIXe-XXe siècle): Discours publics, humiliations privées. Paris: Fayard.

Wihtol de Wenden, C. 1997. Que sont devenues les associations civiques issues de l’immigration ? Hommes et Migrations, 1206, pp. 53-66.

[1] See Brouard S. & Tiberj, V. 2005. Français comme les autres ? Enquête sur les citoyens d’origine maghrébine, africaine et turque. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po; Bertossi, C. 2007. Les Musulmans, la France, l’Europe: contre quelques faux-semblants en matière d’intégration. Paris: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung/Ifri.