France: The country of love and life. Known for its romance and coffee, bistros and outdoor cafe, and art. Personally, France was the country of my dreams. As a little girl, I romanticized the idea of falling in love in Paris while wearing chic clothing that came out of a Parisian boutique. I mean, hasn’t everyone had that fantasy?

As I get older and become more aware of the world around me, that fantasy has fallen apart bit by bit. As a Muslim, I’ve always held a strong connection to my brothers and sisters, and any mistreatment towards them is something I hold dear to my heart. As more Islamophobia has been reported, the more I distanced myself from that envisionment. I wanted to look into how such a beautiful country, with history and fashion and life that I adore, could move towards ideologies that go against who I am as a person fundamentally.

Protests in France (2019)

Four main elements that play into discrimination against Muslims within France are:

  1. Origins with Immigration
  2. Laïcité (Secularism)
  3. The Banlieues
  4. Reactions to violent attacks

Origins with Immigration

Islamophobia within France has been present for years. It was never a product of what we would typically see as factors for Islamophobia, such as 9/11 and the presence of ISIS. Most of these views can be traced back to early immigration from North Africa.

The North African immigrants migrated to France mainly from countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Majority of these migrants being from Tunisia and Algeria. Algerian and Tunisian relations with France have never been the most ideal. There have been many conflicts between these countries and France, relating to early imperialism dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Many believe that these conflicts are why there has been so much opposition to North Africans in the first place.

The Franco-Algerian War

Alergias and France’s peace early on ended with France’s conquest of Algeria between 1830 and 1847. France’s imperialist power remained in Algeria until World War II where France allowed Algerians to join military troops. Even during this period, Algeria did not have equal voting rights between Muslims and non-Muslims. In 1945 there was the Setif Massacre. A massacre that led to 100 French dead and thousands of Algerians killed over a few days; leading to what would be known as the Algerian War of Independence a decade later. Thousands of lives were lost. Algerians were tortured and bombed up to 120 times a day for an entire month in 1961.

This conflict is one example of the gruesome history that is present between France and North Africa. A past that was not long ago. There was an aggressive hatred present, and that hatred continues to harbour itself when discussing immigration from North Africa. Issues with migrants from Tunisia and Morocco reflect this same aggression. There is this ingrained fear of the other that can’t be gone in mere decades.

The assumption that that harboured aggression would be irrelevant after the conflict “ending” so soon can be considered naive due to it existing for centuries. However, this does not mean the opposition to immigration from Northern Africa is enough reason for there to be present discrimination and Islamophobia. When discussing immigration from North Africa to France, there are many conversations regarding economic and work inequality that are a product of the immigration issue. All of these issues play an active role in the Islamophobia that is present.

Laïcité (Secularism)

A fundamental principle and basis of French ideals, secularism or laïcité is extremely important, especially when discussing religious freedom.

Definition of Secularism

indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations

The French Constitution states that “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. Guaranteeing that all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs”. Adding on that, every individual has the “freedom to practice religion”. Although there is religious freedom, secularism takes reign regarding religious requirements such as attire. Attire that is extremely important and deeply rooted for many Muslim women. 

For many years the term secularism has been used to justify Islamophobic attitudes within France. The country itself sees Islam as a “greater threat to their values”. Influencing policies and laws regarding the expression of religion. For example, the banning of religious attire. 

In France, wearing the hijab as a public servant or student in the school is banned. The justification for this is that all religions are equal, meaning that faith shouldn’t be displayed publicly.

Student Maryam Pougetoux showed up to parliament representing the students union in France and resulted in the walking out of an MP. The MP claiming that “As a Member of Parliament and a feminist, committed to Republican values, to laicite and women’s rights, I cannot accept someone who enters a National Assembly hearing wearing a hijab, which for me remains a mark of submission.”

Maryam Pougetoux (Image via Al Jazeera)

The issue with French secularism is that it displays itself in ways that are harming Muslims. Things like dress codes and dietary needs are scrutinized by the French government continuously. We see what would be considered as “mundane tasks” are turned into acts of Islamic separatism. Things like praying, fasting, and growing a beard are all displayed by French society as signs of being “radicalization.” 

In a statement to New York Times, President Emmanuel Macron accuses the English language as the main issue. Claiming that the language itself is what “legitimized the violence.” Macron discussed how laicite is not understood properly by foreign media. This misunderstanding is what causes his words to be twisted in the media.

Although laicite in its most basic terminology is the extreme separation of church and state, how is it justifiable for the state to impose on others religious freedom in the name of secularism? Whether that is dietary needs or religious entire, the state making life decisions for others in the name of “de-radicalization” is harmful. 

The Banlieues

Regarding economic and income inequality in France, it would be impossible to not discuss the Banlieue.

Definition of Banlieue

A suburb of a French city, especially Paris

1.1An outlying housing development in a French city.

The Banlieues, also known as department 93, is a suburb outside of France. Notorious for being “slums dominated by immigrants,” the Banlieues is filled with decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims.

Most Muslims in France live in impoverished areas. Dealing with social/economic inequality and unemployment issues that are foreign to European immigrants. 

The Banlieues (Image via The New Yorker)

Descriptions of the Banlieues paint a very different image from the romanticized France that we all know. It’s been described as even having different air and completely separated from its nearby cities. This separation is a very big issue within France. Although no Muslim extremist can be tied back to these neighbourhoods, but rather to the middle-class bourgeois neighbourhoods, they are still blamed. 

These neighbourhoods have been described as being isolated. The individuals in them feel a “psychological separation” from the rest of France. Regarding ideology and beliefs, people that live in these suburbs believe that secularism is synonymous with atheism and Islamophobia. Every time there is a crime against “secularism,” there is blame placed on these marginalized communities. Many of the kids in these areas talk about how there is a physical disconnect between the central city and the suburbs.

Regarding employment, there are massive issues. Individuals from these neighbourhoods have difficulty receiving mandatory week-long internships that are necessary within the school system in France. These internships are necessary for careers to flourish. European immigrants have often found jobs easily, but this isn’t the case with North Africana and Muslim immigrants. 

France, over the years, has been ridiculed for its treatment of Islam and reactions to terrorist attacks. Many news outlets, such as the New York Post and Washington Post, have openly said that France continues to ignore its marginalized communities. Now, with new measures such as the global security bill, a bill that restricts the videotaping of police officers, marginalized communities, and Muslims that live in the face more battles every day. 

Reactions to Extremism

One of France’s main issues has come after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty. Both of these attacks were in response to images and caricatures that were shown of Prophet Muhammad. Images like these in Islam are strictly forbidden and are seen as direct insults of not just the prophet but also an insult to Islam and God. 

via Al Jazeera

In response to these attacks, President Macron immediately began a plan of action to deal with “Islamic terrorism.” Macron’s National Front Party has always pushed for hard secularism, and with these attacks, the push continues.

A debate has started regarding Islamism vs Islamist. Claiming that “radical Islamism is the culprit.” Discussing how Islamic separatism is the biggest threat to France. There has also been a discussion about Macron’s intentions. Him saying he wants to build a “French Islam.” 

The move towards a more “French Islam” has been characterized by its shutdown of multiple mosques and schools, imams needing to be certified by the government, and the shut down of a large anti-Islamophobia organization (CCIF) in December of 2020. Amnesty International responded to this by saying that “free speech in France, isn’t free speech.” 

Internationally there has been a lot of backlash regarding Macron’s defence of images of Prophet Muhammad. Riots in Pakistan and Bangladesh, foreign leaders questioning his sanity. European countries have come to the defence of Macron and the French government. 

Anti-French protest in Lahore on November 1, 2020. (Photo by ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)

Regarding the attacks, there is nothing more disgraceful than utilizing religion as the reason behind the attack. No matter how ostracized an individual felt, the beheading of Paty and attack at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper was wrong. However, this being a reason to attempt to infringe on religious rights is counter-intuitive. France fails to recognize the harm they are causing to marginalized communities. There has always been a long-standing division between North Africans and Muslims with the French. A division that can’t be mended in mere decades. Rather than push the narrative that Islam itself is harmful to French ideals, a mending of relations and a repair of the isolation that the Banileues feels is necessary. More and more, French children are becoming more vocal with their religion. The only way to unify France would be to cease everything that goes against religious freedom itself, protect these communities that you believe to be so “negative.” In no way am I trying to justify these attacks, but Muslim individuals in France suffer from them as well. They are a victim because their religion is being constantly stripped from them to commit harm on others.