Unrest in France, November 2005: Immigration, Islam and the Challenge of Integration

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

January 12, 2006

Background: Muslims in France

The events of 2005 must be put into context and some enduring myths about social unrest in France dispelled.

  • There are approximately 5 million people of Muslim background in France. Estimates of 6 million and more are not reliable. According to the 1999 census and a survey of family history that accompanied it (based on a sample of 380 000 persons), “potential Muslims” were 3.7 million that year.1 Most French Muslims trace their lineage back to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and to a lesser extent, Turkey. Among “potential Muslims,” that is French citizens of African or Turkish origin with at least one parent or grandparent born in Africa or Turkey, 66% identify themselves as Muslims and 20% as having no religion at all.2

  • Among “potential Muslims” in France, attendance at mosques is not very high. This is particularly noticeable when the figure is compared with church attendance (around 10% attend each week). But religious observance (abstaining from alcohol, fasting during Ramadan and praying) is higher among self-declared Muslims than among self-declared Catholics.

  • Although French Muslims of African or Turkish origin are typically younger than the rest of the French population, fertility rates among immigrant women tend to conform with the French norm after their arrival. The gap in fertility rates between immigrant women and French women is 0.46. While Europe on the whole is experiencing declining birth rates, there are two demographic exceptions: France and Ireland. In France, the fertility rate is 1.94 children born per woman (2005.) (In comparison, the U.S. fertility rate is 2.08 children born per woman.) Without immigrant women, this figure would drop by 0.05 children born per woman. In other words, one can hardly speak of a “demographic time bomb,” “colonization in reverse,” or the “Islamicization of France.”

  • Roughly half of the 5 million Muslims living in France today are not citizens. Many are under 18 years of age or recent immigrants, the latter of which tend not to register to vote. As a result, Muslims are not a political force in France. Even if one assumes that somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million Muslims living in France are eligible to vote, they do not constitute a voting bloc as the French electoral system in general is not predisposed to such blocs. Merely speaking of a “Muslim community in France” can be misleading and inaccurate: like every immigrant population, Muslims in France exhibit strong cleavages based on the country of their origin, their social background, political orientation and ideology, and the branch or sect of Islam that they practice (when they do). With the exception of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), an institution created by the State for purely religious purposes, there exists no common association or central representation for French Muslims.

  • Integration challenges as well as failures and successes must be put in historical perspective: The majority of France’s Muslims today arrived during the 1960s-1980s from North Africa. Integration, however, takes time. Some of the biggest challenges have typically occurred after the first generation. Contrary to its European neighbors, France has been a destination for immigrants since the mid-19th century and has a long history of absorbing immigrants. Integration has always occurred gradually, however. (This was true for Italians, Poles, Spaniards, and especially the Portuguese.) This historical pattern however does not imply that everything will be rosy by 2015 or 2020, but it does suggest that there is a normal evolution towards greater achievements in the second and third generation of immigrants.