“Islam in France: The French Way of Life is in Danger” by Michael Gurfinkiel

Reference: Middle East Forum

Michel Gurfinkiel is editor in chief of Valeurs Actuelles, France’s leading conservative weekly newsmagazine. A specialist in international affairs, he has recently written Israel: Geopolitique d’une Paix (Michalon, 1996) and Geopolitique de la Criminalite (La Documentation française/Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Securite Interieure, 1996).

American visitors to Paris or other major French cities often are amazed when they see how the multiethnic way of life there resembles that in the United States.

Some see this as positive: in a Newsweek cover story, John Leland and Marcus Mabry assert that a “new creative energy — in terms of art and music — is bursting out of the multiethnic suburbs” of France. Others are more pessimistic, pointing to La Haine (Hate), a movie about immigrant or minority teenagers in Marseilles that tells a story of street violence and confrontation with the police that brings the 1992 Los Angeles riots to mind.

But multiethnicity in France goes beyond that in the United States, for it includes a religious dimension in addition to racial and ethnic differences. If the most important minorities in the United States (the black and Hispanic) are overwhelmingly Christian, French minority groups are largely Muslim. American minority groups share many basic values with the rest of the country; in contrast, French minority groups tend to have alien values, to think of themselves as a new nation, and even to have hopes of superseding the present Judeo-Christian nation of France.


Nor is this Muslim aspiration a pipedream. Jean-Claude Chesnais, one of France’s leading demographers at the National Institute for the Study of Demographics (Ined), is very blunt:

Migration trends are to intensify over the coming thirty years… . All developed countries will be affected, including East Asia and the former communist countries. There will be an overall mingling of cultures and civilisations that may lead, as far as France is concerned, to the emergence of a predominantly African population and to rapid Islamization.”

Today, France’s immigrant population amounts to 15 percent of the total population, with lower figures for the Muslim community: hardly a tidal wave. It is also true that France remains an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, with a Catholic baptism rate of 84 percent in 1990. In addition, France is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, nation-states in Europe, and it can claim one of the world’s great and most attractive cultures; these attributes have helped it absorb and thoroughly assimilate large numbers of immigrants during the past century or so, including Belgians and Germans, Italians and Spaniards, Poles and Portuguese, Jews from Eastern Europe and North Africa, Armenians, and West Indian blacks, plus Asians from Indochina, China, and India. Why should not the same pattern prevail throughout the twenty-first century as well?

Still, the prospect of the French’s converting en masse to Islam and France’s turning into an Afro-Mediterranean country is not to be dismissed. Mass conversion and ethnic transition are not rare in history. The Roman Empire, one the world’s most formidable and enduring polities, was transformed in the half-millennium between the first century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E., as ethnic Romans were replaced by neo-Romans of many ethnic or racial stocks and various parlances, from proto-Berber North Africans and Arabs to Slavs and Germans, not to speak of Greeks and Hellenized easterners. Simultaneously, while Christianity abruptly replaced the sophisticated pagan culture of Rome.

To assess the chances of the French’s converting en masse to Islam and France’s turning into an Afro-Mediterranean country is not to be dismissed.

To assess the chances of France’s Islamicization over the coming thirty to fifty years, we look at four factors: the high demographic rates of French Muslims, their aloofness from mainstream society, their increasing religious assertiveness, and the growing appeal of Islam to non-Muslims.

I. Demographic Disparity

As in the United States, there are no accurate population figures on religious affiliation in France, for French law prohibits a census along religious lines in almost all circumstances, even of foreigners. Polls and surveys do exist but vary widely in scope, methodology, and results.

The Ministry of Interior and Ined routinely speak of a Muslim population in France of 3 million. Sheikh Abbas, head of the Great Mosque in Paris, in 1987 spoke of twice as many — 6 million. Journalists usually adopt an estimate somewhere in the middle: for example, Philippe Bernard of Le Monde uses the figure of 3 to 4 million. The Catholic Church, a reliable source of information on religious trends in France, also estimates 4 million. A French-Arab journal published in Paris provides the following breakdown: 3.1 million Muslims of North African origin, 400,000 from the Middle East, 300,000 from Africa, 50,000 Asians, 50,000 converts of ethnic French origin, and 300,000 illegal immigrants from unknown countries. This brings the total to 4.2 million. One can state with reasonable certainty that the Muslim population of France numbers over 3 million (about 5 percent of the total French population) and quite probably over 4 million (6.6 percent).

Perhaps more important than exact numbers is the spectacular rate of growth since World War II. Muslims in France in 1945 numbered some 100,000 souls; fifty years later, the population has increased by thirty or forty times. It continues to grow at a rapid clip, through further immigration (illegal but until now poorly suppressed), natural increase (immigrant Muslim families retain a comparatively high birthrate), or conversion (either as the result of intermarriage or out of a personal religious quest).

If birthrate figures cannot be precisely computed, enough data exists to make educated estimates. Algerian women in France in 1981 had a fertility rate of 4.4 births per woman; in 1990, it had declined to 3.5 births. (Comparable figures for Moroccan women in France are 5.8 and 3.5; for Tunisian women, 5.1 and 4.2.) While declining, the birthrate of immigrant Muslims remains three to four times higher than that of non-Muslim French, which is estimated at 1.3 percent. There is no specific reason to believe that the Muslim rate will eventually parallel the non-Muslim one. It is noteworthy that while in 1981 Tunisian women in France had a slightly lower birthrate than their counterparts in Tunisia (5.1 against 5.2), nine years later it had grown higher (4.2 against 3.4). The reasons for this growth are not clear, but they could include the higher welfare payments in France or the relative ease of family planning, including the choice for a large family, in democratic France compared to semi-authoritarian Tunisia.

In all, the 1992 fertility rate in France was 1.8 births per woman, a figure slightly above those of Germany (1.3), Italy (1.3), and Spain (1.2) but well beneath that of the United States (2.1). France’s demographic advantage over other European Union countries is due largely to its larger percentage of Muslims and their higher birthrate.

Extrapolating from these numbers, the low Muslim-population scenario (low immigration, diminishing birthrate, few conversoins) results in a 50 percent increase over twenty years; between 4.5 and 6 million Muslims in France by the year 2016, out of 60 million French, or 7 to 10 percent of the total population. The high-number scenario (rampant immigration, higher birthrate for Muslims than for non-Muslims, and a higher share of young people in the Muslim population than among non-Muslims) points to a 100 percent or even a 200 percent increase: 6 to 12 million Muslims by 2016, or 10 to 20 percent of the total population. Then there is the superhigh scenario, in which a rapidly expanding, young, and assertive Muslim community simply outpaces a declining, aging, and unsure non-Muslim community.

According to the interior ministry, two thirds of Muslims in France live in major urban areas: 38 percent in the Ile-de-France (Paris and its region), 13 percent in the Provence-C”te d’Azur (Marseilles and Nice, as well as the Riviera), 10 percent in Rh”ne-Alpes (Lyons and Grenoble), and 5 percent in Nord-Pas-de-Calais (around Lille). To get the full measure of Islam’s impact on French society, those figures must be translated into numbers and then related to the size of the local population: 1.37 million Muslims in Ile-de-France out of a total population of 11 million (10 percent); 471,000 Muslims in Provence-C”te d’Azur out of 4.3 million (11 percent); 363,000 in Rh”ne-Alpes out of 5.3 million (6.8 percent); and 181,000 in Nord-Pas-de-Calais out of 3.9 million (5 percent). The Muslim presence is much greater in key areas than the overall figures would suggest. Many cities or neighborhoods in France have turned into all-Muslim territories.

The birthrate of Muslims being three to four times higher than that of non-Muslims, the proportion of children, teenagers, and young adults in urban France is not 5-11 percent but a very impressive 33 percent or so.

II. Outside the Mainstream

Are Muslims in France subject to racism or discrimination? In a 1996 CSA poll, 56 percent of foreigners living on French soil and 61 percent of naturalized French citizens deemed racism “a threat.” Indigenous French citizens do not share this concern: only 27 percent of them mentioned racism as a major threat; they found unemployment, poverty, and AIDS far more worrisome (74, 53, and 50 percent, respectively). Despite this difference of view, a wide consensus exists that North African Muslims are the main victims of racist behavior: over two-thirds of all French citizens agree about that.

The picture is not all negative. A 1995 Louis Harris poll for Valeurs Actuelles shows an astounding 71 percent of all Muslims living in France, foreigners and citizens alike, feel “welcomed” by the French. Many French Muslims are middle class or even upper class. A growing Muslim presence is felt in the liberal and learned professions, particularly medicine (Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Great Mosque in Paris, is a respected physician). Some Muslims have made their way well into France’s ruling elite, the Grands Corps de l’Etat and the Conseil d’Etat. Djamal Larfaoui, an Algerian-born French Muslim, was sousprefet (local governor) of Nanterre, a vibrant and densely populated city in the Paris area, until his sudden death in December 1996; he was granted a state funeral. Others are senior executives in major corporations, such as Yazid Sabegh, chairman of the high-technology Campagnie des Signaux, or Lofti Belhacine, founder of the leisure and vacation company Aquarius and the airline company Air Liberte. This upper crust of French Islam mixes freely with non-Muslims and does not stick to its own neighborhoods. Indeed, no case of housing discrimination against upper- or middle-class Muslims has ever been reported.

Many working-class Muslims also follow this pattern and mingle with non-Muslims; that was particularly the case with immigrants who came in the 1950s and 1960s. Arriving as single men, they frequently intermarried with non-Muslim women, French-born or immigrant, and were quite easily absorbed into mainstream society. Isabelle Adjani, the famed actress, is the daughter of an immigrant Algerian Muslim father and an immigrant German Catholic mother. Ali Magoudi, a well-known psychoanalyst, was born to an immigrant Algerian Muslim father and an immigrant Polish Catholic mother.

But a very high proportion of French Muslims are in the underclass, that segment of the population that relies not so much on education and work as on welfare and predatory activities. Most members of this underclass tend to be Muslims who arrived in France as whole families, including Harkis and post-1974 immigrants. Their condition is not that different from the underclass of blacks and Hispanics in the United States, though there is one striking geographic difference: the American underclass concentrates in the inner cities, while the French is found in the new and dull public-housing neighborhoods that mushroomed at the cities’ peripheries. Suburb and suburbanite have precisely the opposite meaning in France from what they have in North America.

According to Lucienne Bui-Trong, the officer in charge of the Towns and Suburbs Department at the Renseignements generaux (general intelligence) of the French police, no less than one thousand Muslim neighborhoods are under monitoring throughout France, which means that the National Police keeps more personnel there to prevent public disorder. Violence and crime are rampant in those areas. Seven hundred Muslim neighborhoods are listed as “violent”; four hundred are listed as “very violent,” meaning not just that organized crime and firearms are present but that residents have a systematic strategy to keep the police out. The Ile-de-France has 226 violent neighborhoods, Provence-C”te d’Azur has 89, Rh”ne-Alpes 62, and Rh”ne-Pas-de-Calais 61.15.

Unemployment is rife in these suburbs, with 470,000 registered unemployed adults in 1993, or roughly one third of the total adult manpower. Violence ranges from theft and looting of cars (58 percent of all offenses) and street fighting to assault on teachers and civil servants (10 percent). Perhaps most distressing are the high numbers of assaults or rebellions against the police (19 percent). Periodic outbursts of large-scale unrest or rioting sometimes occur. The first major riots occurred at Vaulx-en-Velin, a Lyons suburb, in 1990; since then, further riots have taken place in the Paris suburbs. In addition, riots have even taken place at the seaside or mountain resort sites where suburbanite youngsters are sometimes placed for government-sponsored vacations.

As the notion of a government-sponsored vacation suggests, French suburbs have hardly been neglected by the authorities. Since the riot there in 1990, Vaulx-en-Velin has benefited from a $50 million program financed by the central government since 1990: each of the town’s 45,000 inhabitants has had $1,000 spent on him for parks, sport facilities, underground parking lots, public libraries, and kindergartens. The money even goes for museums, including France’s most modern planetarium and a Permanent Exhibition Center for Minorities. At the national level, $3 billion has been earmarked in French fiscal year 1995 for “urban policies” (a euphemism for ghetto rehabilitation).

And yet, the government has little to show for its expenditures: crime and unrest are both sharply on the rise at Vaulx-en-Velin and everywhere else. The basic assumption underlying this welfare policy — that unrest is the result of poverty and a shabby urban environment — would seem to be proven wrong.

In fact, as many sociologists — including Muslim ones — acknowledge, an almost symbiotic relationship exists in the ghettoes between the underclass way of life and ethnic/religious separatism. Conservative Muslims see the ghettoes as a way to benefit from immigrating to France without having to assimilate into French society. Some level of violence has the advantage of ensuring separation from the outside world and can be used as a bargaining tool with the authorities to get more de facto autonomy — meaning that Muslim enclaves are ruled only by Muslims according to Islamic law and mores — as well as to obtain more funding. It also serves as a social control tool against liberal-minded Muslim individuals, for conservative Muslim leaders can easier exert pressure on liberal-minded Muslims — for instance to compel females to don the veil — within the context of the ghettos’ violence.

To read the full article, please visit the Middle East Forum website at: http://www.meforum.org/337/islam-in-france-the-french-way-of-life-is-in