The Muslim population of France reached an estimated 6.5 million in 2013. Although France is prohibited by law from collecting official statistics about the race or religion of its citizens, this estimate is based on the average of several recent studies that attempt to calculate the number of people in France whose origins are from Muslim majority countries.
This estimate would imply that the Muslim population of France is now approximately 10% of the country’s total population of around 66 million. In real terms, France has the largest Muslim population in the European Union.
Not surprisingly, Islam and the question of Muslim immigration were an ever-present topic in newspaper headlines during 2013. In practical terms, the debate over Islam in France centered mainly on questions about French identity, secularism and security-related issues.
What follows is a chronological review of some of the main stories about the rise of Islam in France during 2013:
On January 1, 2013, Interior Minister Manuel Valls announced that a total of 1,193 cars and trucks were torchedacross France on New Year’s Eve. He also said he was «shocked» by an RTL Radio report which estimated thatmore than 40,000 cars are burned in France every year.
Valls broke with recent tradition by publicly announcing the number of car burnings because «the French people should know the truth.» His predecessor, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, decided in 2010 to stop making public the number of car burnings because doing so had the effect of encouraging competition between rival gangs of Muslim youths, determined to see which of them could cause the most destruction.
Car burnings are increasingly commonplace in all French cities and are often attributed to shiftless young Muslims who reside in suburban slums known as banlieues. French authorities are especially eager to avoid a repetition of the riots in 2005, when the deaths of two Muslim teenagers in the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris sparked weeks of looting and car-burning, and led to the imposition of a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, jihadists in France and elsewhere debated how to respond to a comic book biography of the Prophet Mohammed published on January 2 by the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo.
According to the inestimable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which translated the Arabic twitter posts of several jihadists, the suggestions included: «killing France’s ambassadors, just as the ‘manly’ Libyan fighters killed the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi; carrying out operations similar to 9/11, London’s July 7, 2005 bombings, and Madrid’s March 11, 2004 bombings, because only attacks of this kind would deter and defeat the ‘crusaders’; carrying out assassinations; conducting suicide bombings outside the French Information Ministry building; and holding demonstrations outside French embassies, especially in Egypt, because it has [allegedly] been proven that the Egyptian public can sway the entire Arab public.»
It was also suggested that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kill the hostages it is holding, and that anyone who can kill a French national do so without hesitation.
The Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo were destroyed in an arson attack in November 2011 after the magazine featured a cartoon of Mohammed on its cover. The attack marked a serious escalation of a long-running Islamic war on free speech and expression in Europe.
Also in January, France braced for threats from angry Muslims after the French military began operations against Islamist insurgents in northern Mali, a former French colony, on January 11.
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Paris’s top anti-terrorism judge, Marc Trévidic, said: «We have a very large Malian community in France, but also from sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. These ‘black’ French Muslims who were suffering from latent racism from ‘Arabs’ have for the first time found their jihad.»
Trévidic added: «All the ingredients exist so that there are repercussions on our soil. France is backing those who want to intervene militarily in Timbuktu. So we are the enemy and are identified as such.» He also said the French had to get used to the idea that terrorism was here to stay and could not be eradicated. «We will have to accept this reality without deluding ourselves. It means we have to accept that attacks will succeed and there will be deaths.»
Islamists held a demonstration outside the French Embassy in London to protest against the military campaign in Mali. In a video posted on YouTube on January 20, a British Islamist was filmed saying:
«Look to your own doorstep in France. Your own French women are abandoning their Christianity and donning the hijab and the burqa…Our eyes are on Paris…We will not stop, as Muslims, until the whole world is governed by Islam.»
«So French government, let that be a warning, or a piece of advice, to you. Take it the way you want, because you will never stop the army of the Muslims. You will never stop Muslims, because this nation is far too large to be stopped. This [Muslim] nation is like a tidal wave. When it starts, it doesn’t stop. It will conquer the east of the East and the west of the West, because that is the prophecy of our Prophet Mohammed.»
«What we are saying to [French President] François Hollande is that the Muslims throughout the world will not rest until Islam dominates France, until Islam dominates the entire world. Islam will not dominate only Mali, Afghanistan, and Africa, but also France, Paris, and England. François Hollande, you must understand a few facts of life: You are a son of Pharaoh. The blood of Pharaoh courses through your veins.»
«The Islamic movement will become a system of life under your nose. Your wife, French women, the people of France, will live under the Islamic movement, even if you don’t like it. Most of the residents of Paris are Muslims. Allah willing, most of the French system will be according to Islamic Sharia law. Most of the residents of France will be Muslims, Allah willing.»
A survey published in the Paris-based newspaper Le Monde on January 24 found that 74% of French citizens view Islam as «intolerant» and «incompatible» with French values. The survey, conducted by Ipsos, also found that 70% of respondents said there are too many foreigners in France, and 67% said they no longer feel at home in France.
In February, French authorities launched a crackdown on homegrown Islamic extremists considered to be a potential risk to public order. During a hearing at the French Senate on February 5, Interior Minister Manual Valls said he had ordered the intelligence services to «neutralize» individuals linked to jihadist networks.
Valls made the announcement on the same day that police rounded up four suspected jihadists, aged between 22 and 37, in the southern Paris suburb of L’Haÿ-les-Roses. The four—three French citizens, including one with Franco-Algerian dual citizenship, and one Malian—were suspected of trying to join Islamist extremists in Mali, a haven for global jihadists.
«We must continue this work to dismantle these networks that want to act on our territory or smuggle individuals to carry out jihad, to learn the practices of terrorism,» Valls said. «We are fighting terrorism outside of France, but we are also fighting an internal enemy since there are those French who fit into this process of radicalization. This enemy must be fought with the greatest determination.»
In March, the daily newspaper Le Figaro reported that «at least 50» and «as many as 80» French citizens were fighting with jihadist groups in Syria. (Since then, French counter-terrorism authorities have increased that estimate to at least 300).
The French anti-terrorism judge, Marc Trévidic, told Le Figaro that the presence of so many French jihadists in Syria presents French authorities with an uncomfortable paradox. Because France officially supports the effort to overthrow the Assad regime—France was the first Western country to recognize Syria’s rebel council as the country’s legitimate interlocutors—it is difficult for the French government to come out and say that it does not support those who are fighting the war.
Trévidic said Syria was a natural destination for French jihadists. There are no visa requirements for French citizens to enter neighboring Turkey, where it is easy to find Syrian contacts and then cross a porous border. He also said that trained and experienced jihadists, once back in France, could become a dangerous problem for the authorities.
Trévidic referred to the fight in Syria as an «authorized jihad» and added: «It is particularly complicated to qualify their adventures in Syria as acts of terrorism. But let’s not be fooled. A good proportion of [the jihadists] are going there in the hope of helping to establish a radical Islamic state. The actual terrorism will begin just as soon as the Assad regime is defeated.»
The interview with Trévidic came just two days after French police arrested three suspected Islamists in the town of Marignane, near Marseille. Police—who became suspicious after the suspects had hoisted a jihadist flag on the roof of their house—found weapons and explosives at the home of one of the suspects, all French citizens between the ages of 18 and 27.
Paris prosecutor François Molins said on March 11 that the three men may have been planning an attack to commemorate the first anniversary of the shooting rampage in the southern city of Toulouse by Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French Islamic jihadist of Algerian origin who killed three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi with close-range shots to the head.
On March 30, police in Paris evacuated the Eiffel Tower following an anonymous bomb threat. The Paris landmark—which was evacuated due to bomb threats on at least two other occasions in August and October—was on high counterterrorism alert throughout 2013 amid heightened concern about threats to France over its military campaign in Mali.
Also in March, a school in the town of Arveyres in southwestern France said it would no longer offer a meat alternative to students who do not eat pork. According to French television TF1, 28 of the 180 children attending the school used to be offered a substitute meat when pork was on the menu.
The mayor of Arveyres, Benoît Gheysens, said the move was taken because of the cost of providing alternative meals, many of which went to waste. «Often children who did not take the substitute dinner complained and did not eat the pork. It distressed the staff to see how much food was wasted,» Gheysens said.
Muslim parents were enraged by the decision, and some responded by vandalizing Gheysens’ car and harassing him after hours at his home.
Meanwhile, a survey published by the newspaper Le Parisien on March 25 found that the vast majority of French citizens say they are in favor of the burqa ban, which entered into force in April 2011.
The law—which prohibits the wearing of Islamic body-covering burqas and face-covering niqabs in all public spaces in France—was enacted amid rising frustration that the country’s Muslim population is not integrating into French society.
The poll found that 86% of French people are in favor of introducing legislation that would ban «all signs of religious or political affiliation» in public and private schools and nurseries. According to the same poll, 83% support a law that would extend the ban to all privately-owned businesses.
In April, French Education Minister Vincent Peillon announced a plan that would force students in primary and secondary schools to debate «secular morality» [morale laïque] for one hour every week beginning in September 2015. The plan is part of government efforts to reinforce secular values in French schools in light of the growing influence of Islam in the country.
Peillon’s original plan was for the topic to be taught as a separate subject with dedicated teachers. But after a wave of opposition from teachers, the plan was watered down, and discussion of secular values will now take the form of debates rather than formal teaching.
According to the plan, teachers will be given special training on how to lead debates on issues in which Islam takes a different position, and students will be evaluated individually based on their knowledge and behavior.
In May, police arrested Alexandre Dhaussy, a 22-year-old French convert to Islam, who allegedly stabbed French soldier Cédric Cordiez in the neck while he was on patrol at the La Défense transport hub in Paris on May 25. Cordiez survived the attack, which police say was inspired by the brutal killing of British soldier Lee Rigby in London on May 22.
Prosecutor François Molins said that Dhaussy—who was filmed praying just moments before the stabbing—»wanted to attack a representative of the state» and «acted in the name of his religious ideology.» Since his detention, Dhaussy has repeatedly invoked the name of Allah.
Also in May, a report by the Reuters news agency threw a spotlight on the growing problem of Islamic radicalization within the French prison system. The report says France is unique among Western countries because of the sheer number of Muslim inmates.
Although no official data exist, more than half of the inmates in French prisons are believed to be Muslim, rising to 70% in some urban areas. This disproportionate ratio, coupled with overcrowding and overtaxed guards, makes young Muslims in French prisons easy prey for jihadist recruiters, according to guards, prison directors, ex-inmates, chaplains and crime experts interviewed by Reuters.
In June, counter-terrorism police in Paris arrested six jihadists accused of belonging to an Islamist cell and preparing attacks in the country. The suspects, aged 22 to 38, included four French nationals, one man from Benin and another from the Comoros islands.
Meanwhile, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a Muslim rights group, filed a lawsuit against Ivan Rioufol, a well-known French journalist, for «libel and public insult and especially to incitement to hatred, discrimination and racial violence.»
Rioufol, who has written for the newspaper Le Figaro for almost three decades, made allegedly offending remarks about Islam during a radio interview in November 15, 2012. Speaking as a guest on the RTL radio program called «We Reshape the World,» Rioufol objected to a CCIF poster campaign under the slogan «We are the Nation» which sought to portray France as a Muslim country. Rioufol said this violated the spirit of France’s inclusive, secular republic. The CCIF disagreed and is now suing Rioufol under France’s 1881 Press Law.
According to Rioufol, who is awaiting his trial at the 17th Criminal Court in Paris, Muslims are using the Press Law to «penalize criticism, intimidate journalists, censor the media and to reintroduce the offense of blasphemy.»
In a blog post on Le Figaro’s website, Rioufol reminds his readers of a statement made by CCIF spokesman Marwan Muhammad at a mosque in Orly in southern Paris in August 2011: «Who has the right to say that France in thirty or forty years will not be a Muslim country? Who has the right in this country to deprive us of it? Nobody has the right to deny us that hope, to deny us the right to hope in a true global Islamic society. Nobody has the right in this country to define for us what the French identity is.»
Also in June, Muslims went on a riot after police stopped a 25-year-old woman for wearing a niqab in Argenteuil, a suburb 12 kilometers (8 miles) northwest of Paris. It is against the law to wear the face-covering niqab or the body-covering burqa in public spaces in France; violators are subject to fines of up to €150 ($200).
According to the French newspaper Le Parisien, the woman had initially agreed to the identity check, but a passerby got involved, saying that, in his opinion, the check was illegitimate. He then began to attack the police; almost immediately more than 50 Muslims joined the melee. Outnumbered, the police were forced to call in reinforcements, who eventually used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
In July, hundreds of Muslims in Trappes, a suburb situated 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of Paris, went on a three-day rioting spree after police attempted to check the identity of a Muslim woman who was wearing a niqab in public.
The unrest began on July 19 when a crowd of up to 400 Muslims gathered outside the Trappes police station in response to the arrest of a 21-year-old man who assaulted a police officer during the identity check of his 20-year-old wife.
After police in Trappes rejected Muslim demands to release the husband, the mob went on a rampage, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at police, pelting police with firecrackers from rooftops, burning cars and trucks and destroying public property, including several bus stops, before being repelled by riot police. Despite a heavily reinforced police presence, the rioting continued on July 20 and 21.
Also in July, the European Parliament voted to remove the immunity of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French anti-immigration party Front National, for remarks in which she compared Muslims taking over French streets for prayers to the Nazi occupation of France.
During a political rally in the French city of Lyon in December 2010, Le Pen said: «For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it is about occupation, then we could also talk about it [Muslim prayers in the streets], because that is occupation of territory. It is an occupation of sections of the territory, of districts in which religious laws apply. It is an occupation. There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers but it is nevertheless an occupation and it weighs heavily on local residents.»
The French government banned street prayers in 2011 after thousands of Muslims from Paris to Marseille and elsewhere closed off streets and sidewalks (by doing so, they closed down local businesses and trapped non-Muslim residents in their homes and offices) to accommodate overflowing crowds for midday prayers.
The loss of immunity means Le Pen could be prosecuted in France. Polls conducted during 2013 consistently show that Le Pen has surged to become one of the most popular politicians in France.
In August, two French converts to Islam fighting in Syria caused consternation in France by issuing a call for jihad. In a video posted on YouTube, the half-brothers from the southern city of Toulouse—home of the al-Qaeda-inspired murderer Mohamed Merah—appeal for holy war and urge French President François Holland to convert to Islam.
|Nicolas (R) and his half-brother Jean Daniel (L) are French converts to Islam, who travelled from their homes in Toulouse to wage jihad in Syria.|
Also in August, the High Council of Integration [HCI], a government-funded research institute, recommended that the wearing of religious symbols—such as crucifixes, Jewish skullcaps and Muslim headscarves—should be banned in French universities to ease the «escalating religious tensions in all areas of university life.»
In a 54-page report (PDF here), HCI says its research has shown that some universities have experienced problems from demands to be «excused from attendance for religious reasons…for separation of the sexes in lectures and seminars, instances of proselytizing, disagreements over the curriculum, and the wearing of religious clothes and symbols.»
A law passed in 2004 prohibits the wearing or open display of religious symbols in all French schools and colleges, but does not apply to universities.
In September, the French government introduced a «secularism charter» for schools. The document—which is to appear in a prominent location in all of the 55,000 public schools in France—would serve to remind students and teachers of a list of secular principles underpinning the separation of mosque and state.
Also in September, a new «Dictionary of Islamophobia» was published that systematically takes the words and expressions spoken by politicians, journalists, intellectuals, artists and writers in France and claims to show how «Islamophobia is becoming commonplace today.» Each entry in the 366-page dictionary provides the context and an explanation of the offending words. The book calls for vigilance to advance the concept of «living together.»
In October, a French convert to Islam—who was sentenced to six months in prison for biting a police officer while he was arresting her for wearing a niqab—appeared at her appeal hearing wearing a niqab.
Louise-Marie Suisse, who was 18 at the time, bit the police officer during an identity check in Marseille in July 2012. In September of that year, a court found her guilty of «violent behavior toward a person vested with public authority» and sentenced her to six months in prison.
On October 25, 2013, an appeals court in Aix-en-Provence upheld the conviction. Upon exiting the courtroom, Suisse shouted: «This is injustice. Muslims are oppressed in France. The law on the niqab is draconian.»
In November, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) opened a landmark hearing to consider the legality of France’s ban on wearing Islamic veils in public spaces.
The court’s ruling—expected to be issued sometime during the middle of 2014—will determine the fate of the debate over so-called burqa bans that have been raging across Europe for many years.
The court began hearing the case—which is being brought by a 23-year-old French Muslim woman identified only by her initials S.A.S.—on November 27.
According to a summary of the case published by the court, S.A.S. sued the French State in April 2011, when legislation banning people from covering their faces in public places came into force.
S.A.S. argues that the French law violates six articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. These are: Article 3 (no one shall be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment); Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life); Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion); Article 10 (freedom of expression); Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association); and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination).
This is the first time the supra-national ECHR has agreed to consider the legality of the face-covering niqab or the body-covering burqa in public spaces in a European country.
In a separate case, an appeals court in Paris on November 27 upheld the dismissal of a Muslim nursery worker who was fired for wearing an Islamic headscarf to work, in violation of an internal dress code banning religious garments.
The decision overturned a lower court’s ruling that the Baby Loup daycare center, situated in the Parisian suburb of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, was guilty of religious discrimination when it fired Fatima Afif in December 2008.
The appeals court ruled that the daycare center, which takes care of infants from 55 different nationalities, had a right «to impose neutrality on its personnel.»
The lawyer defending Baby-Loup, Richard Malka, welcomed the ruling because it «reaffirms the strength of the principle of secularism.»
But the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) denounced the ruling as «a veritable judicial scandal» that means «nobody is protected against being judged by one’s religious, ethnic or social origin.»
In December, a panel appointed by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to review France’s integration policies urged the government to implement a «new form of secularism» that would raise the profile of Islam in public life—in order to improve the integration of Muslim immigrants.
Among a long list of recommendations aimed at «recognizing the richness of multiple identities,» the panel said that public schools in France should begin allowing Muslim pupils to wear headscarves in class (clothing that has been outlawed since 2004), and that courses should be taught in Arabic and African languages rather than in French.
The panel also recommended a number of other multicultural changes that would provide greater recognition to the «Arab-oriental dimension» of France’s national identity. These include changing street and place names, overhauling the history curriculum taught in schools and creating a special day to honor the contribution of immigrant cultures.
More notably, the panel said that authorities and the media should be prohibited from referring to people’s nationality, religion or ethnicity in public, and that the government should create a new law that would make «racial harassment» a punishable offense.
The controversial recommendations are contained in a series of five documents that were discretely posted on the prime minister’s official website in November, but only came to public attention on December 12, after anexposé by the French daily newspaper, Le Figaro.
Not surprisingly, the proposals to develop an «inclusive secularism» in France have sparked a firestorm of criticism.
Jean-François Copé, the leader of France’s main opposition party, the conservative UMP, said in a statement that the proposals are «explosive and irresponsible» because they replace «the one and indivisible French Republic with a motley assembly of communities, ethnicities and groups of all kinds.»
The leader of the FN, Marine Le Pen—who has attained record-breaking popularity for her criticism of runaway immigration—said the report’s recommendations are «a very grave provocation» and implementing them would be tantamount to «a declaration of war on the French people.»
According to the French philosopher and essayist Alain Finkielkraut, multiculturalism and runaway Muslim immigration are responsible for the destruction of French national identity.
In a politically incorrect interview with the Germany newsmagazine Der Spiegel on December 6 to discuss his latest book—»L’identite Malheureuse» [The Unhappy Identity]—Finkielkraut says European elites have consistently misrepresented multiculturalism as the model for the future. Instead, he says, «mistrust prevails, communitarianism is rampant—parallel societies are forming that continuously distance themselves from each other.»
According to Finkielkraut:
«Immigration used to go hand-in-hand with integration into French culture. That was the rule of the game. Many of the new arrivals no longer want to play by that rule. If the immigrants are in the majority in their neighborhoods, how can we integrate them? … Many Muslims in Europe are re-Islamizing themselves. … The left does not want to accept that there is a clash of civilizations.»
Finkielkraut sums it up this way: «I am of the opinion that our generation’s task is not to recreate the world, but to prevent its decline. … I become sad and feel a growing sense of anxiety. Optimism would seem a bit ridiculous these days. I wish the politicians were able to speak the truth and look reality in the face. Then, I believe, France would be capable of a true awakening—of contemplating a policy of civilization.»
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.