Muslims in France: a cautionary tale

Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, The Globe and Mail

Many are searching for reasons for last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris. Was it a failure of French intelligence? Faulty border controls? Possibly both. But there’s a deeper issue that Western countries would be wise to consider.

Since the end of the Algerian colonial war in 1962, France has failed to integrate its Muslim minority. Three generations born in France have led largely dead-end lives in bleak suburbs. Invisible to Parisians, they are a social underclass, ripe for exploitation. Although they are only about 8 per cent of the French population, Muslims represent 70 per cent of the prison population, where they come into contact with Islamist radicals.

It’s possible to identify reasons for the widespread rejection of French Muslims, the most evident being the Algerian war, which remains unresolved in French historical memory. For eight years, the French army fought (and sometimes tortured) Algerians in a failed effort to keep the colony. The conflict between French and pro-Algerian nationalists (including authors Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) spread to the streets of Paris. As a student, I once fled into a café to escape gunfire at an intersection. When the war ended, thousands of Algerian Muslims moved to France, where to many they remained “the enemy.” As the formerly colonized, they were considered inferior.

Inequality was effectively formalized, causing resentment, especially vis-à-vis France’s other major minority. In 1870, Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship, so when they, too, migrated to France after Algerian independence, they had access to jobs and other privileges that were denied to Muslims, who did not carry automatic citizenship. Although Jews and Muslims had lived together in harmony in North Africa for centuries, their relationship in France hardened.

France has a long history of rejecting “the other.” It used to be anti-Semitism. From the Dreyfus affair at the turn of the 20th century to the collaboration of the wartime Vichy government with the Nazis in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to concentration camps, the French have struggled with xenophobia. There have been significant moments when a tone of regret and tolerance has prevailed, such as then-president Jacques Chirac’s 1995 apology for the role played by the French state in the deportations; and François Hollande followed suit when he assumed office. But when the Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen (now led by his daughter, Marine) came to prominence in the 1980s, it was deeply anti-Semitic, as well as anti-Arab. And after the recent attacks, the party is poised to win big in the next elections, with unknown consequences.

France’s unbending commitment to secularism – an ideology that originated with the Enlightenment – has similarly contributed to xenophobia; a 2004 law prohibiting students from wearing religious symbols to school, such as Muslim girls’ head scarves, exacerbated mutual distrust. (When Quebec tried to enforce a copycat version, starting in 2013, chaos resulted.) Attempts to force assimilation are usually socially destructive, as the now-acknowledged tragedy of the native residential schools in Canada has made clear.

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, researchers Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid report on generational alienation among Muslim youth in Paris. Although it is estimated that more than 90 per cent of French citizens with radical Islamist views have French grandparents and 80 per cent come from secular families, these young people identify neither with France nor with Algeria. They have been “born again” into a place of meaning, action, perceived glory (even if they die) and respect. Being young, they are idealistic. They are “morally outraged” at what they perceive to be the persecution of Muslims worldwide. “I didn’t want to be a street gangster,” one young man told the researchers. Becoming a “holy warrior” for Islam was his way out. This is a passion we can’t afford to dismiss, the authors conclude.

What does this mean for Canada? If mass migrations propelled by war and climate change become a feature of the 21st century, then this country is well placed. We have had patches of xenophobia, but we have an internationally respected history of successfully integrating newcomers.

Social well-being depends on proffering respect and opportunity. France’s sad history is a cautionary tale.

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