Since the 1980s, French governments have tried and failed to fully integrate French Muslims and, increasingly, to fight extremism and radicalization. Despite their best efforts, these goals have been impeded by multiple factors, including the legacy of French colonialism, the unique interpretation of the separation of church and state in France, various internal divisions within French Muslim communities, and the ongoing influence of various external actors including foreign governments.
President Emmanuel Macron, too, struggles with these challenges. Early in his term, he declared his intention to “set down markers for the entire way in which Islam is organized in France.” In 2018, Macron began a consultative process toward this end, stressing the need to set up an interlocutor for French Muslims (similar to those of other religious groups), create a framework for financing places of worship and collecting donations, and a system to vet and train imams working in France. Macron’s initiative sought to amend of the Law of 1905 on the Separation of the Church and the State (Law of 1905) with the goals of intrusively reforming religious organizations and ending foreign funding pouring into Muslim communities, which Macron felt prevented “French Islam from entering into modernity.”
But last Friday, he went a problematic step further, warning that he would make no concessions to a “political Islam…which wants to secede from our Republic” and appearing to say that he would cut off foreign funding for Islam in France.
The French state, as protector of both religious freedom and secularism, is attempting to navigate the country’s balkanized Muslim community. Throughout French history, the management of religion has been closely linked to the assertion of state power, and the government developed a bad habit of relying on external parties to regulate Islam within France’s borders. But is the French state truly the best interlocutor to settle practical questions related to the organization of religion?
A brief history of Islam in France
France’s attitude towards Islam since the 1960s can be broken down into three main periods.
During the first phase (1960s-1990s), the management of religion was not a public issue with regard to Islam. Immigrant workers who arrived during these years of economic growth often lived in self-organized hostels, designed—in part—to facilitate the practice of religion. With a view to these workers one day returning home, the migrant-sending countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey considered themselves to be legitimate interlocutors with the French state on issues of religion. They sent paid imams to France, funded prayer rooms, and organized national federations to serve as conduits for their influence. Algeria in particular considers itself the primary interlocutor, since the majority of French Muslims are of Algerian origin.
French authorities accommodated these countries and their religious roles for several reasons. First and foremost, foreign states wanted to maintain a connection with their nationals, whom both they and France considered to be temporary migrants. As most of them had not intended to apply for French nationality, it therefore made sense for their countries of origin to represent them. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979, the assassination in Egypt of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981, and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, France came to realize that Islamist movements constituted a body of new political actors that were difficult to control—a task seen as better suited for Muslim-majority governments.
After the 1973 oil crisis, the Maghreb labor import strategy was halted and immigrant workers, afraid of not being able to return to France if they traveled abroad, brought their families to France. In the 1980s, organizations supporting Muslim communities failed to keep up with the evolving needs of French Muslims, particularly those of their French-born and raised children. Despite being born and raised in France, French Muslim youth found it difficult to integrate into society, leading them to develop a different relationship with religion. On an international level, authoritarian countries in the Middle East and the Maghreb could no longer contain Islamism, which people used as way to express their anger towards authoritarian regimes. France understood, perhaps a little too late, that delegating the management of Islam to foreign powers was no longer sufficient and perhaps even creating new problems. The Saudi-based Muslim World League, which promotes Saudi-style Islamic beliefs and practices alien to Europe, funded the construction of a number of mosques in the 1980s and the 1990s, as well as transnational movements like the Tablighi Jamaat, the Salafists, and the Muslim Brotherhood that operated freely in some of France’s poorest neighborhoods, the banlieues.
During the second phase (1990-2000), the state exerted its control over French Islam through a representative council. In the late 1990s, there was no satisfactory representation of Islam to interact with public authorities. Indeed, Sunni Islam (which is the main current of Islam in France) does not have a clerical hierarchy. There are therefore no religious authorities similar to those of the Catholic Church that would be natural interlocutors with the state. Also, after several decades of delegating the management of Islam to foreign powers, it became necessary to curtail their influence. But that was not an easy task: Algeria, for example, was reluctant to give up its role as a caretaker of the Great Mosque of Paris. Then Interior Ministers Pierre Joxe and Charles Pasqua tried to build an Islam of France based on the supposed influence of the Great Mosque of Paris throughout France. For example, in 1994 Pasqua granted the Great Mosque of Paris monopoly authority over the certification of halal meat.
In the 2000s, France struggled to contain the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which operated freely through the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF). This movement represented an Islam with no state affiliation and attracted an audience that was still searching for its identity. The birth of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) in 2003, meant to serve as an official umbrella organization that directly interacts with government, came at the urging of then-Minister of Interior and future president Nicolas Sarkozy for groups like UIOF to join a central body. Through its membership in the CFCM, the UOIF shifted from its previous “outsider” status to becoming part of an emerging institutionalized, official structure of French Islam. But the honeymoon did not last. The internal divisions within the UOIF, the incapacity of the CFCM to maintain cohesion, and Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to run for office on the back of an electorate prone to reject Islam and Muslims, led the UOIF to withdraw from the CFCM in 2011. The Federation of the Mosque of Paris had previously withdrawn in 2008 because it could not accept the rotating presidency negotiated several years prior. Deprived of these two important actors, the CFCM is today a hollow shell.
The picture today
Today, the institutionalization of Islam in France keeps facing the same barriers. Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey keep strengthening their grip on Islamic religious expression in France. Algeria intended to keep playing a central role in France. Morocco’s King Muhammed VI strongly asserts his status of “Commander of the Faithful” outside of Morocco, looking to unite a network of mosques in France under the guise of combating religious extremism by leading a theological reform of Islam. However, the creation of a French representative body of Islam has not ended the influence of those countries, partly because of the ineffectiveness of the CFCM, and with Algeria and Morocco fighting a proxy war for the allegiance of French Muslims.
One of the few goals achieved in these efforts concerns the organization of chaplaincies. While Muslim chaplains are relatively well-organized in the army, they remain too weak in prisons and in hospitals and practically nonexistent in public education. Furthermore, foreign imams remain in France in high numbers. According to the ministry of interior, 151 imams have been sent by Turkey (which has undertaken a spate of religious outreach to Muslims across Europe over the past decade), 120 by Algeria, and 30 by Morocco. The official dialogue with these countries has made it possible to establish a rule requiring imams sent to France to follow civic and administrative training provided in French. The aim is to remind imams and chaplains of the rules they must follow, and to familiarize them with the history of laïcité, or France’s distinct conception of secularism.
Regarding the construction of mosques, Algeria pays a global grant to the Great Mosque of Paris, which then redistributes funds to a series of projects for mosques affiliated to the National Federation of the Great Mosque of Paris. Morocco, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia also send funding. Since 2004, Morocco has been developing a training strategy for imams to establish its influence in French mosques via the ministry of religious affairs. Morocco has made a commitment to the French ministry of interior to provide civic and civil training courses. For instance, in 2015 then-President François Hollande signed a deal with the Moroccan monarchy to send French imams for training at the Mohammed VI Institute in Rabat. This training offer is part of a broader strategic approach, which also affects sub-Saharan Africa since Morocco also receives imams from Guinea, Mali, and Ivory Coast.
Despite these efforts, there is still a shortage of French places of worship for Muslims. It is often assumed that there is not enough money to finance the construction of mosques, yet no one today is able to quantify the funding capacity coming from the French Muslim community itself. The French Senate’s report on the financing of Islam does not provide any figures on the budgets of the mosques. Many assume that French Muslims are too poor to fund their own places of worship and that they are dependent on foreign funding. In reality, only large projects require significant funding from foreign sources. It is difficult to give a precise estimate, but the Senate report notes that the total budget is already mostly financed by French Muslim communities.
Since the 1960s, before the creation of a representative national authority, Islam in France was built on a local level around mosques. Any rethinking of the organization of Islam needs to take this into account. According to the ministry of interior, most mosques in France today are primarily independent of foreign control. But these unaffiliated mosques have have never been represented in the CFCM system, which for political and diplomatic reasons gave more privileges to foreign-influenced federations. Attempts by the French state to centralize the organization of Islam have been counterproductive precisely because of the involvement of foreign states that continue to control organizations within the CFCM.
Toward a better approach
French Muslims will not come into their own without total financial autonomy. The Law of 1905 requires the state to be neutral towards religion and to guarantee equal treatment for different faith groups. France must take into account the diversity and decentralized nature of Islam and French Muslims.
However, the reality is that all religions in France are not treated equally, and Islam in France does not enjoy all the resources and provisions granted to other religions. Constructive action would focus on ensuring complete equal treatment to respond to the specific challenges posed by Islam: to return to the spirit of the Law of 1905 not only by reinforcing religious freedom and avoiding interference with religious practises, but also by encouraging French Muslims to build religious organizations in accordance with the Law on non-profit organizations of 1901, as is common with other denominations.
Finally, Macron’s proposed reforms have to be conducted in a transparent and realistic fashion and cannot be done without fully involving French Muslims in genuine dialogue. But such a project is doomed to fail if French Muslims do not organize themselves, take the lead, and step up rather than waiting for public authorities to choose their preferred Muslim interlocutors.