Islam in France

December 1, 2001

In a long-planned public-relations initiative, France faced Algeria in a “friendly” soccer match three weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The organizers hoped to showcase the success of “republican” integration and the maturity of the Algerian migrant presence in France. Contrary to script, however, some young soccer fans booed the national anthem, threw objects at two government ministers and—once the French lead had reached 4-to-1—ran onto the field, forcing the game’s cancellation. The game’s spectacular ending gave a different impression from that desired by its organizers. It also confirmed the misgivings of those wondering, in the aftermath of September 11, whether Muslims in France could represent a threat to the Republic. “Where are the beurs going?” asked the cover of Le Nouvel Observateur, above photographs of the second- and third-generation immigrant youth invading the soccer field. (“Beurs” is a French slang term for Arabs.) Whether from the disruptive actions of a few, or because the five million Muslims residing in France are beginning to take on organized religious and political contours, a decisive moment has arrived in the French Republic’s long coexistence with Islam.


It is difficult to know exactly how many Muslims of different nationalities live in France because the state does not collect religious or ethnic census data. The republican notion of citizenship keeps religious practice and ethnic origin squarely in the private domain (and the French are wary of past abuses of such government files). Half of the estimated five million French Muslims are born or naturalized French citizens. Those of Algerian origin form the largest subgroup. Most arrived during the post-war economic boom: North African independence coincided with strong French demand for manual labor. These workers were already settling in France and starting families when the government ended labor migration in the mid-1970s. A steady annual flow of thousands has persisted under family reunification provisions. This has especially reinforced the Muslim populations around Paris, where one-third are concentrated, and in Lille and Marseilles, which together are home to another one-third.

National Origins of the Muslim Population

Algeria 1,550,000
Morocco 1,000,000
Tunisia 350,000
Black Africa 250,000
Turkey 315,000
Converts 40,000
Asylum Applicants/Illegal 350,000
Asians 100,000
Other 100,000
Total 4,155,000

These migrants have tended to concentrate geographically and have benefited from state supports in social and religious policy. But any articulation of their interests as group interests is discouraged. Here the revolutionary spirit of the National Assembly debate granting citizenship to the Jews is still current: deny them everything as a nation and grant them all as individuals. To suggest that Muslims form a coherent, unitary “community” is a taboo act of reification, inconsistent with the Jacobin tradition.

Of course practical electoral and symbolic politics leads to a different outcome. French politicians actively court different religious communities. Though there were some 1.2 million Muslim voters by the mid-1990s, the foreign nationality of other Muslims in France complicates the state’s interaction with them. Moreover, France’s reluctance to identify specific suffering or needs of sub-national groups has recently been tested. The last two governments have issued decrees compensating the Jewish communities of France for material and spiritual damages under Vichy. France has also timidly begun revisiting its mixed history of domination and war in Algeria. But there remains a general “republican” reluctance to address the specific challenges of integrating the heirs of this experience.

French Muslims and the War on Terrorism

Journalists’ speculations in the early fall that the largely migrant-populated suburbs might harbor wasps’ nests of America-haters—if not sleeper cells–coincided with the lethal explosion of a chemical factory in Toulouse, breeding weeks of speculation that France was again victim to Islamic terrorism.

Reports of a foiled suicide bomb plot against the American embassy in Paris were followed by coverage of Zaccarias Moussaoui, the Frenchman arrested by FBI agents in August and thought to be the missing twentieth 9/11 hijacker. But Usama Bin Laden’s videotaped call for Muslims to rise up against western host societies does not seem to have won sympathy with French Muslims.

French Muslims as a community, even in the religiously sensitive period of Ramadan, overwhelmingly condemned the attack on New York. Ninety-two percent agreed in an IFOP survey that Islam condemns terrorist acts and the same number said the hijackers were not legitimately Muslim “because Islam is a religion of peace and moderation.” Seventy percent also approved of French participation in an eventual military response, only slightly lower than support among the overall French population.

Muslims have organized themselves in several principal federations, oriented in part along lines of national origin. Total membership in these associations probably does not exceed 10-20 percent of Muslims in France. Foremost among the Algerian presence is the Grande Mosquée de Paris and its associated Muslim Institute. Similar in size, the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF) is a large umbrella organization with Moroccan and Egyptian ties. There are also three main Turkish and various African religious associations, in addition to small cliques around individual religious and political personalities. Nearly all of these religious groups and the mosque they represent have participated in consultations with the Interior Ministry to create a High Authority of Islam in France. In the realm of civic society, a host of groups representing Muslim students and women have gained associational status under to the 1901 law governing secondary associations. Some of these associations have had established contact with local authorities for decades, such as those founded on behalf of the resident “Harki” population of Algerians who sympathized and fought on the French side during the Algerian War.

Muslim Piety in 2001 (and 1994)

36% “observant believers” (27%)
33% pray daily (31%)
20% go to the mosque on Fridays (16%)
      Tunisians 33%
      Turks 28%
      Moroccans 27%
      French 15%
      Algerians 13%
70% observe Ramadan


The 1905 law separating church and state prevents the public funding and official recognition of religious communities. The law allows for the public maintenance of religious buildings in existence at the time of the law’s passage and also contains similar exceptions for the salaries of clergy employed by prisons, hospitals and the army. In its affirmation of the principle of equality in the free exercise of religion for all French citizens, however, the law is increasingly interpreted as a commitment to create sufficient material conditions for Muslims to practice their religion. This includes prayer spaces and Halal-related requirements, and eventually the training of clergy and the accommodation of Muslims in public cemeteries. Efforts like the recently elected mayor of Marseille’s project to build a large Islamic cultural center and mosque have required consultation of the local Muslim populations, and thus the organization of their representatives.

The community’s religious needs are not minor. Of 1558 prayer spaces in France, the vast majority can accommodate fewer than 150 people, and only 20 can hold more than 1,000 congregants. In all, there are five mosques in use in France that were built expressly as mosques. These numbers compare with 40,000 Catholic buildings, 957 temples and 82 synagogues.

Since Napoleon forcefully organized Catholics, Protestants, and Jews in centralized consistoires with designated religious heads, those communities have developed parallel umbrella institutions in the political and social domains. Many Muslim leaders would like to combine the roles of political and religious interlocutor in a single council. Consultations have been taking place at the national level under the Interior Ministry (also the Ministère des cultes) since the Rocard government in 1990. Ministers Joxe, Pasqua, Chevénement, and now Vaillant, have attempted to finalize a new High Authority of Islam. But the French government—which strongly supports the republican brand of secularism known as laïcité—favors the creation of a strictly religious council. It is is especially loath to institutionalize domestic political consultations with non-French citizens.

Nationality of Imams in France (1990)

French Citizens 4%
Moroccan 40%
Algerian 25%
Turkish 13%
Tunisian 5%
Other 13%
Total Pop. 500 Imams

State involvement in the provision and training of Muslim clergy is also a question of concern to national security, as recent raids on Islamic religious centers in Hamburg and Milan have shown. Due to state inaction in the prison system, for example, a lack of state-provided Imams has created space for Islamic proselytizing to take root. With the share of Muslims in the prison population surpassing 50 percent, only forty-four clerics fulfill the state’s duty to provide religious consultation. By comparison, the prisons employ 460 Catholic clerics.

To address technical issues of Muslims’ religious needs, advisers in the Interior Ministry maintain close contact with the diverse components of the Muslim organizational world. The Ministry says it is “accompanying” the Muslims in their quest for centralized organization. But the inclusive nature of this consultation has provoked accusations of religious extremism and nationalism among rival associations. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grande Mosquée de Paris, and his ally Soheib Bencheikh, Mufti of Marseille, have systematically opposed the inclusion of the UOIF, whose Moroccan spokesman they denounce as an Islamic extremist. Plans for a regional assembly election in spring 2002 have also been the subject of controversy. Delegates will be allotted according to a mosque’s surface area, which does not always reflect actual attendance. These technical questions of representation will likely prove resolvable, as the recent elections in Belgium have shown. Indeed in the French region of Alsace-Moselle, governed by a special state-church regime because is was under German control at the time of the 1905 law, organized Islam enjoys the same recognition and benefits as other officially recognized religions.


While integration of Islam is taking place at the symbolic and institutional levels, political leaders have begun to confront France’s troubled past with Algeria. Plaques have gone up on the Pont Saint-Michel and in the Invalides courtyard commemorating Muslims who died during the Algerian war. The long-neglected Harkis, who had fought on the side of France and were massacred by nationalist Algerians, finally received a presidential day of honor. And the victims of police violence during a 1961 Paris protest—a still uncounted number of “French Muslim of Algerian origin” estimated at between 50 and 200—had their memory inscribed by the mayor at the site of their deaths. Indeed it was in the context of formally expressing gratitude to 100,000 Muslim soldiers who had died for France in WWI that the Grande Mosquée de Paris and Muslim Institute were founded in 1922, in contravention of the 1905 law. The recent official review of the historical service and suffering of France’s half-million Jews has certainly accelerated their community recognition and strengthened their hand in negotiations with the state. Will something similar happen with France’s Muslim population?

Reacting to the October 6 soccer match in Le Monde, the Algerian ambassador to France argued that the French state was equally responsible for the alienation of second-generation migrant youth, and called for their prompt social and political incorporation. The consequences of not integrating Islam into existing state-church structures would likely include an increase in foreign Imams and foreign money, and a decline in transparent and homegrown religious organization. Authorities would rightly fear the increasing hostility of a new generation excluded from public institutions; many also feel a duty to extend to them the promise of republican citizenship. President Chirac did not let a month pass after September’s attacks before convening leaders from the French Muslim world at the Elysée, and the new mayor of Paris organized a gala soirée du Ramadan at the Hôtel de Ville this year. But echoes from the bizarre soccer match still linger in the media, a striking counter-image to Algerian-born French star Zinedine Zidane’s heroics during the World and European Cup championships in 1998 and 2000 that won so much support among the French. When Franco-Portuguese youth whistled at the Marseilleise during a recent France-Portugal game, politicians and the press did not pay any attention. This reflects a strong impression that Arab-Muslim youth in particular have not been properly integrated into French society, and that achieving this will require the development of targeted state policy in domains where it is reluctant to act. How this occurs, over the course of the next decade, will be a major factor in the successful integration of one-third of Europe’s Muslim population.