French Council for the Muslim Religion

March 1, 2005

Jonathan Laurence guest edited the Spring 2005 issue of French Politics, Culture, and Society on the topic of the new French Council of the Muslim Religion. The journal can be viewed online. The introduction, written by Jonathan Laurence, has been reprinted below with permission from the publisher.


Politicians and civil servants charged with the task of helping a “French Islam” emerge in late twentieth-century France faced a vast, transnational network of more than 1600 Muslim associations and mosques in dozens of French towns and cities. During the colonial era, Islam in French Algeria was exempted from the 1905 separation of church and state, and no one at the time imagined that one century later, 5 million Muslims would inhabit metropolitan France. The legacy of French and later, Algerian, state oversight of the Muslim religion is still felt within Islam in France today. In the post-colonial period up until the 1980s, French authorities relied on immigrants’ home governments for the accommodation of religious requirements, from the salaries of imams to the creation of prayer spaces. After a 1981 law liberalizing association law for foreigners, Muslim organizations linked to foreign governments and international NGOs established prayer associations and banded together in national federations. By the late 1980s, France judged its combined policy of outsourcing followed by laissez-faire attitudes to be counterproductive to Muslims’ social integration. French governments thus set about improvising a place for Islam in the secular room of laïcité—seeking a balance between official control and an equally undesirable absence of recognition or regulation. The French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM) emerged in 2002-2003 as the culmination of a fifteen-year political and bureaucratic process. Its complex institutional arrangement testi- fies to Islam’s permanence in the French landscape and marks the furthest any French government has gone to ensure Muslims’ presence in state institutions alongside the representatives of other major recognized religions.

This special issue of French Politics, Culture & Society offers a wealth of inside perspectives on the French state’s search for a representative Muslim interlocutor. 1 At this early stage of the CFCM’s activities, it is worthwhile to consider the Council’s institutional and ideological origins and to explore its potential roles in the life of French Muslims. The contributors to this issue—a mix of practitioners, politicians and scholars—were asked to consider the logic and methods behind the French state’s intervention as well as the limits of the CFCM’s effective representation. Three of the authors are former high-level Interior Ministry officials, two are CFCM members, and four are scholars who have conducted extensive field research on Islam in France. Additional specialists join two round table debates in the “Interventions” section following the articles. Together, they offer a privileged glimpse of the consultations in their institutional, social and political context, from their inception in the 1980s through the Council’s birth in late 2002. A common theme emerges in these contributions: the delay with which the Muslim religion is taking its place alongside Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations, and how best to overcome the historical handicap Islam suffers due to its absence at the time of the 1905 law. What strikes the reader is not so much the novelty of the consultation process, although the international linkages of contemporary Islam can appear more crosscutting and complex than those of say, nineteenth-century Catholicism or Judaism. But several authors refer to the CFCM’s “fragility” and the need for some historical distance before assessing its efficacy.