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Are Muslims permanent foreigners in France?

- October 2, 2014
French Education and Research Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem attends the questions-to-the-government session at the National Assembly in Paris, Sept. 10, 2014. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

This guest post is the fourth in our series on immigrant integration in Europe. See the previous three posts here.

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In response to dissent from within and disapproval from without, French President François Hollande recently reshuffled his cabinet. Notably, Hollande appointed Najat Vallaud-Belkacem as minister of education. Vallaud-Belkacem was born in Morocco and obtained her French citizenship in her teens. She is also Muslim and a believer in secular public education who has fought for gay rights and gender equality. Various right-leaning news outlets responded to her appointment with a toxic combination of racism and Islamophobia. The cover of Minute reduces Vallaud-Belkacem to “A Moroccan Muslim” and states that this is in and of itself a “provocation.” Meanwhile, the cover of Valeurs Actuelles reads: “The Ayatollah: Investigation into the Minister of National Re-Education.” Why, in a nation where citizenship is supposed to be learned, not inherited, is it so difficult for French Muslims to advance past “foreigner” to “fellow citizen” in the eyes of their compatriots?

Phrases like “second generation,” “third generation,” or the even more vague (and infinitely recursive) “of immigrant origin” have become code for referring to French men and women of color and non-white Muslims. It is true that we need to consider immigration when talking about the Muslim experience in France. That said, it is inaccurate to conflate “Muslims” with “immigrants.” Exact numbers are difficult to obtain because the French government refuses to collect or store statistics based on religion (or race or ethnicity). Nevertheless, we do know that many Muslims in France today are the children of immigrants, or even the grandchildren of immigrants; additionally, some have only one immigrant parent. And increasingly, French people are converting to Islam. Recognizing that immigration has directly or indirectly affected the lives of many Muslims in France is not the same as assuming (fallaciously) that all Muslims are foreigners.

But the real answer to our question about “permanent foreignness” does not lie in sloppy demography. French Muslims continue to appear foreign largely because today’s political debates are premised on an assumption of Muslim “different-ness,” and structured in a way that emphasizes this difference. For all of the discrimination, educational inequality, violence, and hostility that Muslims experience in France, political discourse concerning Muslims in the country overwhelmingly focuses on narrow religious issues it attributes to all Muslims: the hijab, the niqab, halal meat, the construction of mosques and the oppression of women.

This introduces two problems. First, these debates present a flattened, homogenous view of Muslims in France. Not all Muslim women wear a hijab (and extremely few wear a niqab in France); not all French Muslims follow halal dietary laws or even attend mosque regularly; and many Muslims in France support gender equality. Second, the narrowness of these debates sidelines other political concerns that French Muslims have, perpetuating the impression that French Muslims are only concerned with their religion.

What are these other political concerns? Starting in 2008, I analyzed activist literature of various Muslim organizations and conducted interviews with almost 50 French Muslims active in social or political organizations (not all of which are Muslim in orientation). These data paint a very different picture of Muslims in France than what we find in the media or in the writings and speeches of many French politicians or intellectuals.

As I discuss in my book Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship (which is available for free online), French Muslims have varied political interests which come from a diversity of political orientations and run the gamut in terms of political subjects. Some want to talk about the discrimination they face as Muslims, but not all do. Some French Muslims believe in the difference-blind secular republican model and do not want to discuss their religious affiliation, which they see as a private matter, in public. Beyond religion, French Muslims have political concerns that appear no different from those of other French citizens: they want to discuss the economy, the state of public education, the employment market, and the elitism of French politics. These political preferences map on to political affiliations and identities that extend beyond religion alone: French Muslims are influenced by and speak in terms of political parties, attitudes toward neoliberalism, class, gender, and yes, sometimes, the immigrant experience.

When we listen to French Muslim political discourse, what we hear is something that sounds very French. French Muslims engage politically with the experiences and challenges of life as a citizen in France today, not just with Islam or their status as a religious minority. The problem is that we rarely ever get to hear political discourse by French Muslims in which they are not already forced into the position of having to refute religious stereotypes or confront narrow policy debates about their religious practices. Put it this way: how many French people came away from reading about Najat Vallaud-Belkacem’s political appointment with any deep sense of what her future education policy proposals are likely to be, as opposed to learning that she is a Muslim from Morocco?

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Jennifer Fredette is an assistant professor of political science at Ohio University and author of “Constructing Muslims in France,” which was published in 2014. Fredette’s book is available for free online thanks to a creative commons license and some daring publishing experimentation by Temple University Press and Knowledge Unlatched.