France's Incomplete Citizens and Why Some Put Islam First

The aftermath of last year's Paris terrorist attacks.

By Myriam Renaud|April 21, 2016

When most readers survey the media’s analysis of last year’s Paris terrorist attacks, they ask, “Why?” Why do some French-born-and-raised children of immigrants place Islam first and France second? Why do some Muslim beneficiaries of the many advantages of French citizenship and of a top-notch education become radicalized? Any real answer to this question will be complex and multifaceted and thus ill-suited to the 24 hour news cycle with its focus on stories that entertain and its zeal for the fresh scoop. The result: the question remains unanswered. French and non-French, Muslim and non-Muslim, continue to wonder. Why?
In the meantime the French (and others) assume that terrorist violence will continue. Commonplace these days is a sense of resignation: going to crowded places is to court danger. Those who sit outside at restaurants or cafes are all too aware that they run the risk of never returning home. Others decide to stay away from busy locations or away from Paris and France altogether. The occupancy rate in French hotels dropped after the November attacks (lost revenue is estimated at 270,000,000 Euros) and some airlines cut back on flights to Paris thanks to low demand.
What can history tell us? For many who reached France by way of the French Empire, history bears the heavy imprint of colonialism followed by the benefits and challenges of independence from foreign rule. The immigrant workers who helped rebuild France during the so-called “Glorious Thirty” of 1944-1974 were then rendered jobless and marginalized when the industrial sector collapsed during the next “Pitiful Thirty.”
And the marginalization continues. In France, data on religious affiliation are not collected during the census. This, because such concerns are considered private. Yet the French government considers the size of its Muslim population to be critical information, which it gathers through the back-door approaches of counting mosques (2,101 in 2010) and making inferences from demographic polling data. In April 2011, based on the study “Trajectoires et Origines” (TeO), the Ministry of the Interior announced that Muslims in France number between five and six million, or almost 10% of the population.
Political scientist and Islam specialist Gilles Kepel argues that Islam is being singled out by the French government and treated as unique among the religions. The government has decided, in Kepel’s analysis, that, for Muslims, Islam trumps other commitments. Muslims (it is assumed) cannot participate freely in the public sphere because their dual Islam-France allegiance—with Islam as primary—impedes their capacity to become full citizens.
To the extent that this is true, four factors play a role.
First, as Kepel explains, most older-generation Muslims who live in France immigrated during the last half-century. A significant number chose not to become naturalized citizens, perhaps because they did not care to pledge allegiance to their one-time colonizer. With their non-French passports, they maintained ties to their countries of origin.

Their children, on the other hand, acquired French citizenship ipso facto. As they negotiated their own and their parents’ various nationalities, Islam began to strike these first-generation French citizens as the one factor common to all of their identities and as the anchor to which they could tie themselves.
Second, although older-generation Muslim immigrants rejected French nationality, they settled in France permanently. They did so, Kepel writes, at a time when factory jobs were disappearing and, along with those jobs, the union movement’s support network and political influence.

Not only did these immigrants find themselves slipping down the class ladder, they found themselves cut off from work, which provides conditions important for integration into society. This situation, Kepel notes, led to the re-kindling of strong religious commitment because participation by Muslim immigrants in their communities of origin, whether “real or imaginary,” helped restore their sense of dignity.
Third, the TeO study shows that for the majority of French people, the principal factor leading individuals to feel discriminated against is “being female.” For Muslim immigrants, the principal factor, by far, is “origin”—which includes Islam. Among their children—first-generation French citizens—a feeling of discrimination linked to origin (and Islam) not only persists but increases. According to TeO, these children are twice as likely to report a sense of discrimination linked to origin than their parents. In contrast, a sense of discrimination decreases significantly among children of European immigrants when compared to that reported by their parents.
A fourth factor contributes to young French Muslims’ perception of disenfranchisement and marginalization: the continued dominance, in national elections, of upper-crust fifty-somethings of European origin. In 2011, the 577-member lower-house legislature, the National Assembly, did not include a single official with ties to France’s Muslim electorate. 

Since then, only one representative, Abdoulatifou Aly from the island of Mayotte, has been elected to the Assembly. Leading up to the 2007 presidential election, civic associations made concerted efforts to register young Muslims to vote; however, after their preferred candidate, the Socialist Ségolene Royal, was defeated, their participation in elections dropped significantly.
The upshot: a persistent sense of marginalization and allegiance to Islam as a primary identity marker means that first-generation Muslim citizens are more likely to remain what Kepel calls “incomplete” citizens. As “incomplete” citizens, they, in turn, retain a chronic sense of estrangement from society and of disfranchisement from the political process. They are likely to maintain strong ties to Islam as an anchor for their multiple identities and to secure their sense of dignity. Although the French government assumes that Islam is the cause of partial integration, the reasons are complex and circular.
To begin to address this problem, French political leaders must look harder for ways to help “incomplete” citizens feel like the “full” citizens that they actually are. Civic associations should redouble their efforts to convince Muslims to vote. Steps should be taken to include a significant number of Muslim representatives in the government. This would reassure young people that their participation in France’s institutional life matters and could encourage them to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship.
The government could also increase and expand initiatives like those of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, the public university that trains many of France’s civil servants. Sciences Po, as it is also known, launched a program in 2001 that has admitted nearly 1500 students from high schools in disadvantaged areas. Many more such opportunities, especially ones that target French Muslim youths, are needed.
Hutchinson, John. “Paris tourism continues to be hit hard by ISIS terror attacks as hotels lose millions in revenue, Eiffel Tower visitors fall and airlines suspend flights.”, January 20, 2016, Travel.
Kepel, Gilles. Quatre-vingt-treize. Paris, Éditions Gallimard: 2012.
Muslims in European Politics.” Euro-Islam: News and Analysis of Islam in Europe and North America, accessed April 19, 2016.
SciencesPo Campus de Paris. “Ils ont réussi grâce aux conventions éducation prioritaire.” April 4, 2016. Accessed April 19, 2016.
Institut National D’Études Démographiques (INED). “‘Trajectories and Origins’ Survey.” Accessed April 19, 2016.
Lilla, Mark. “France on Fire.” New York Review of Books, March 5, 2015, Books.
Sayare, Scott. “The Fragile French Republic.” The Atlantic, November 27, 2015, Global.
“Talking Cure.” The Economist, April 2-8, 2016, International.

Image: Paris, France; Credit: ilolab / creative commons.

ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Author, Myriam Renaud, is Managing Editor of Sightings. She is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Thought at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her research focuses on the relationship between Gordon Kaufman's understanding of God and the moral life, on the 1993 Parliament of the World Religions' Global Ethic and, more recently, on methods of comparing religious thought about God across contemporary Muslim, Christian, and Jewish thinkers. This year, she was awarded a Fellowship by the Panel on Theological Education of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Renaud was a 2012-2013 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center. @MyriamRenaud


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Kevin Callahan
In the late 70's I spent 2 years living in Paris as a student, and I observed first hand the phenomenom that your describe. All around me the (literally) blue collar workers from northern, west and central Africa were cleaning the street with their brooms made of twigs, washing the platforms in the Metro and other menial work. They were immigrants, and while they did not become citizens and held themselves apart, the native French citizens did not help much either, with discrimination rampant.
Now, you rightly point out, a new generation of their children remain marginalized, but I think that there is more to it than just a reliance on Islam as their main anchor. These children of immigrants, born in France and educated in the French system, are still treated like immigrants. I had said back in the 70's that the children of these immigrants would not settle for the work that their parents did, and it is true, they do not want to. Native born French citizens are not happy when the children of immigrants want a job that is more suited to their education. Often times, a foreign sounding name means a resume goes into File 13. On a trip to France in the 80's while dining in my favorite restaurant in the Latin Quarter, Dar el Beida, the young man "touting" the tourists at the door explained that although he was university educated, he could not get a job interview. His resume was ignored. When he francizised his name, he got an appointment, but when he showed up, he was told there was a mistake, the job was filled.
Although born and educated in France, the children of these immigrants are still considered, and referred to as immigrants, when they are not. Our unreflective media here in the U.S. does likewise. Several years ago when there were riots in the ghettos in the Parisian Banlieux, I remember reporters here on TV referring to the rioter as immigrants, which is not true.
Until the French accept the children of immigrants who are French citizens and start treating them as such, with equal rights and opportunities, nothing in France will change.

Myriam Renaud

Author, Myriam Renaud (PhD '18), is a former editor of Sightings, and has written about religion for The Atlantic, The Conversation, Religion & Politics, The Globe Post, and more. She is co-editor, with William Schweiker, of Multi-Religious Perspectives on a Global Ethic: Toward A Common Morality (Routledge, 2020). Currently, she is at work on an academic monograph, Toward a Moral God and a Humanizing Theology, and a general audience monograph, White Evangelicals in America.