Is Integration Possible for the Muslims in France?

Felisha Kuo, Jan 16, 2024

On January 7, 2015, several Islamist extremists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satiric magazine infamous for its satirical portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, and indiscriminately shot at journalists and office workers. The assault resulted in the death of twelve people, deeply shocking France. People gathered to march against terrorism, united under the slogan “I am Charlie,” seeing the attack as one on freedom of speech. 


Just five years later, history teacher Samuel Paty, was publicly beheaded by an Islamic terrorist after showing students several Charlie Hebdo cartoons in civics class. The country mourned the death of Paty, seeing it as yet another attack on freedom of speech. 


The two attacks sparked public controversy around the Charlie Hebdo caricatures depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. While many people admit that these caricatures are racist, up to 67% of those in France blame Islam’s lack of tolerance of other views for the attack. Most of France’s people remain united under the freedom of expression, arguing that the publication’s disrespect of Islam doesn’t justify violence. Still, up to 28% of those in France blamed the disrespect Charlie Hebdo had for Islam [1]. 


After witnessing the wave of attacks linked to radical Islamism, France launched a series of strict anti-radicalization bills that almost exclusively targeted the Muslim way of life, leading many to question whether Islam can ever be successfully integrated into French society. 


Underlying France’s fierce defense of freedom of speech is la Laicite, a cornerstone concept of French republican values and identity. Laicite is a deeply rooted French philosophy that roughly translates to “the freedom of the state from religion.” Laicite is the context in which French Catholic Church was separated from the Republic. In 1905, a law was passed that aimed to eliminate any religious influence in all public spheres, policy-making, and state-sponsored events while guaranteeing the freedom of worship in private life. Laicite is not only France’s “contemporary political DNA”; it has become the French identity integral to participation in modern French society [2]. 


It is important to emphasize that while secularism applies to the public sphere, the freedom to worship in private spaces is encapsulated in the very concept of Laicite, which emerged as the Republic’s defense against religious presence in politics and aiming to establish equality and public order in an increasingly multicultural, multi-religious population. Consequently, it is implied that the Republic has the responsibility to uphold neutrality when drafting policies relating to the regulations of religious organizations [3]. 


The 1905 Law has been cited as the grounds for various bills by politicians, ranging from the 2004 banning of hijabs in public schools to the more recent 2021 “Paty Law” that reinforces oversight of mosques, schools, and sports clubs to fight against Islamist radicalization. 


Laicite has become a word wielded by right-wing politicians when it comes to discourse on Islam’s relation to French identity. Borderlining fundamentalism, Laicite has been used to back up several policies on public visibility of religiosity. 


In September 2020, France’s highest court, the Council of State, approved the dissolution of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). Though the organization focused on fighting discrimination against Muslims in France, it was accused of transgressing a vaguely defined anti-terrorist policy, resulting in its dissolution. The Council claimed CCIF violated Article L212-1 of the Internal Security code by maintaining “close links with supporters of radical Islamism,” giving the State the right to dissolve the group [4]. Though this decision was highly contested by some jurists, the Council ultimately ruled in favor of the dissolution.  


A month later, France-based Muslim charity BarakaCity was dissolved by the French government on the suspicions of ties to “radical Islamist movements.” While the charity denied all accusations, the suspicion lingers, further reinforcing the misconception that any form of Islam is linked to violence. Senior researcher at the European Union Eva Cosse describes these events as “part of a broader crackdown by French authorities in response to attacks attributed to Islamist extremists.” Cosse writes that “the closure of CCIF [would] likely have a chilling effect on freedom of expression” [5].


In 2021, just one week after the Samuel Paty attack, French Minister of Interior Gerald Darmanin introduced an anti-separatist “Paty Law” that, on the grounds of restoring “public order,” gave rise to a series of inspections, closures, and tightened control on religious organizations. 


Soon after, French President Emmanuel Macron passed the “Paty Law” that allows the Republic to more easily monitor and regulate schools, places of religious worship, and clubs to better hamper the growing radicalization of young Muslim youth. Macron described “Islamic separatism” as the Muslim community’s intent to replace civil laws with customs derived from Sharia law, which could create a more traditional and conservative “counter society” against French secularism [6]. Stemming from a fear of religiously motivated violence and growing Islamization, supporters of the anti-radicalization bill argue that stricter regulations on religious organizations will lead to less radicalization, and less violence. 


While the 2021 anti-separatist bills intend to counter all separatist organizations, the Muslim community feels targeted. Between 2018 and 2021, a total of 672 Muslim establishments, including 21 mosques, were shut down. From an 2020 Reuters interview with Karim Daoud, who runs a local mosque in northwestern France, the overreach of government regulation of religion is evident. Daoud explained that in just a few days of Samuel Paty’s death, “the local interior ministry office closed the mosque on grounds that it was promoting ‘a radical practice of Islam,’yet when Daoud asked for evidence for radicalization, the ministry office provided little public evidence for the decision [7]. By not disclosing the methods for determining forced closure to the public, the ministry adds tensions and distrust between Islam and the Republic. The series of poorly explained mosque closures have societal repercussions, too – the wave of closures of Muslim establishments suggests that Islam is inherently linked to violence and radicalization, adding to the already growing Islamophobia.These laws are perpetuating the false notion of Islam that is becoming more distorted through the media.  


Considering the political and social tensions, re-integration of the Muslim community should be the Republic’s first priority. Instead of adopting heavy-handed anti-radicalization policies that inflames the strained tensions between Muslims and the Republic, re-integration by better understanding the Muslim population and a revaluation of state neutrality in policies relating to religion would prove to be a more feasible long-term solution.


Who are the Muslims of France? France is home to one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe, taking up to 5.6% of the mainland French population over the age of 15. Muslims are overrepresented in the working class and only a small percentage of management-level employees are Muslims. In a 2016 report published by the Institut Montaigne, an independent nonprofit based in Paris, France, survey results show that “there is no single ‘Muslim community’ nor an organized ‘Islamic separatism’” [8]. 


Based on a series of socio-demographic and typology surveys, the report concluded that within the Muslim community, Muslim-identifying individuals are divided on topics such as headscarves in public, attitudes towards the French government, and involvement in their religion. Surprisingly, the report found that up to two-thirds of Muslims believe that a secular state is essential for freedom of religious expression, even after the 2004 ban on hijabs in public schools. Contradicting the Islamist separatist narrative of the right, the study also revealed that 78% of Muslims registered to vote say they do not always vote for a Muslim candidate, meaning that Macron’s so-called concern of an Islamist separatist movement is implausible.


For integration to be successful, first, the French Republic must acknowledge the significant French Muslim population. The Republic adopts a colorblind approach to public policy, and its reluctance to collect racial data and truly understand its people has detrimental societal consequences [9].


Various private institutions have attempted to collect racial data independently, however, there are discrepancies between collected data. Considering the frequent citation of ethnic and religious data in political debates on topics of immigration and counter-terrorism, having accurate data to paint a realistic picture of France’s ethnic make-up is crucial. In reality, however, the lack of ethnic data leaves the populations of people of color ambiguous, allowing right-wing politicians to spread the irrational fear of the “Islamization” of France without citing concrete statistics that illustrate reality. One frequently employed narrative, the “Great Replacement” conspiracy, popularized by French author Renaud Camus in his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement. The Great Replacement conspiracy theory warns of the gradual replacement of FrenchFrance culture by Muslim communities, serving as the underlying basis for the rhetoric of those supporting anti-immigration laws, anti-separatism bills, and counter-terrorism policies [10]. Right-wing politicians such as Eric Zemmour, whom many refer to as “France’s Trump,” over his use of inflammatory, racist language, oftentimes bases his arguments on concepts from the Great Replacement theory. Official racial data collected by the French government can deflate this right-wing narrative and counter the irrational fear of Islamization.


If the government and the French public better understood the diversity within the Muslim communities, the misinformed fear of “Islamist separatism” could be dissolved. In an interview with Harvard International Review, Emilia Roig, founder of the Center for Intersectional Justice, emphasized that, while “race may not exist, but racism still does, and it kills." Roig is not wrong. The fear of Islamization is having drastic effects on the Muslim population. According to France’s Interior Ministry, anti-Muslim incidents tripled in 2015, taking the form of vandalism of mosques, hate speech, and violence against individuals, summing to 54 registered anti-Muslim incidents [11].  


In 2018, The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news organization, conducted a study assessing the level of confidence of Muslims in institutions in state institutions. The study demonstrated that compared to the non-Muslim control group, the confidence scores of Muslims in areas such as public schooling, the Parliament, and the President were on average higher than the non-Muslim control group, demonstrating strong trust in most public institutions. However, in the areas of police, Muslims scored lower than the control, citing feelings of discrimination in interactions with the police [12]. What this study indicates is the strong trust of Muslims in the Republic, yet in return, the feeling of discrimination along with a series of anti-radicalization, anti-separatist bills. 


The second part of the solution of re-integration involves a revaluation of the government’s neutrality and transparency when applying anti-radicalization policies. The dissolution of Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) is a form of censorship that keeps the public narrative on topics of Islam and terrorism stagnant. Instead of widespread closure of mosques with scant evidence cited for suspected radicalization, the state can increase transparency by disclosing how they evaluate whether an institution is at risk of radicalization.


Integration goes hand in hand with counter-terrorism and de-radicalization. France sees a Muslim population that grows increasingly distrusting of their government as new anti-separatist laws are passed. From the perspective of Muslims, what the Republic claims as counter-terrorism measures target Islam, and this distrust is what’s driving radicalization. By prioritizing integration over anti-separatist bills, an opportunity to rebuild trust between the Muslim community and State can be created.


In it all, successful integration requires the clarification of the meaning of Laicite. The philosophy, shared among Muslim and non-Muslim French citizens alike, needs to be clarified through the reassessment of policy, and if successful, France can serve as an example to other European nations looking to implement counter-terrorism policies without promoting Islamophobia.


[1] Heimlich, Russell. “Most in France Blamed Muslim Intolerance for 2006 Cartoon Controversy.” Pew Research Center. September 20, 2012. Accessed Dec. 6, 2023.

[2] Colosimo, Anastasia. “Laïcité: Why French Secularism Is so Hard to Grasp.” Institut Montaigne, 11 Dec. 2017, Accessed Nov. 23, 2023.

[3] Kuru, Ahmet T. “Passive and Assertive Secularism: Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles, and State Policies toward Religion.” World Politics, vol. 59, no. 4, 2007, pp. 568–94. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Nov. 2023.

[4] “Internal Security Code.” Republic Francaise, August 26, 2021. Accessed Dec. 1, 2023.

[5] Cosse, Eva. “French Court Confirms Dissolution of Anti-Discrimination Group.” Human Rights Watch. September 27, 2021. Accessed October 5, 2023.

[6] Ganley, Elaine. “France passes anti-radicalism bill that worries Muslims.” Associated Press, February 16, 2021. Accessed Dec. 5, 2023.

[7] Jabkhiro, Juliette. “French mosque closures based on ‘secretive evidence.’ critics say.” Reuters, April 5, 2022. Accessed Dec 6, 2023.

[8] Karoui, Hakim El. “A French Islam is Possible.” Institut Montaigne. September 2016. Accessed October 7, 2023.

[9] LaBreck, Abby. “Color-Blind: Examining France’s Approach to Race Policy.” Harvard International Review, Feb. 1, 2021. Accessed Dec. 4, 2023.

[10] Bullens, Lara. “How France’s ‘great replacement’ theory conquered the global far right.” France 24, Aug. 11, 2021. Accessed Dec. 1, 2023.

[11] Kishi, Katayoun. “Muslims, Jews faced social hostilities in seven-in-ten European countries in 2015.” Pew Research Center, April 12, 2017. Accessed Dec. 4, 2023.

[12] Ragazzi, Francesco, et. al.. “Separatism”: what if anti-terrorism policy was on the wrong track?” The Conversation, November 8, 2022. Accessed Dec. 6, 2023.

[13] Photo credits: Ortelpa, Olivier. “Paris rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hedbo shooting, 11 January 2015. Place de la République” Flickr, 11 Janurary 2015, Accessed Dec. 12, 2023.