France's longstanding traditions of secularism in the political sphere and Roman Catholicism in religious life are being tested as the country tries to integrate a growing Muslim population. The construction of mosques, the creation of representative Islamic bodies, and the wearing of religious symbols in schools are just a few of the issues that have sparked vigorous public debate.
The rapid growth of Islam, now France's second-largest religion after Catholicism, is behind much of the debate. Survey results published in Le Monde in April 2003 revealed that 62 percent of all French say they are practicing Roman Catholics, versus six percent who say they are Muslims. While Catholics are still the overwhelming majority, the size of the group of people who call themselves Muslims has tripled since 1994.
Immigrants from the former French colonies of Northern Africa and their offspring comprise the vast majority of Muslims in France, far outnumbering those from West Africa, Turkey, and the Indian Subcontinent. In all, it is estimated that there are approximately five million such people, if everyone originally from a primarily Muslim country and their French-born offspring are counted.
Though the modern-day presence of Muslims in France can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century, no single organization has ever been recognized by the state as the formal representative of the Muslim community. Various Islamic groups handle their relations with the French government individually, making it difficult for authorities to engage in dialogue with the Muslim community as a whole.
Looking to bridge this gap, French ministers have since 1990 been attempting to facilitate the creation of an Islamic body capable of representing all of the country's Muslims. Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy finally succeeded in this regard with the founding of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, whose first elections were held in April. The results showed the strong influence of the National Federation of Muslims of France (FNMF) and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF). Members of these organizations are considered radical in comparison with Muslims headed by the leader of the Paris mosque, France's principal Muslim place of worship.
The stakes of such elections are high, for they have a direct impact on the government-Muslim dialogue on the social and public practice of Islam, such as the month-long Ramadan fasting holiday, the ritual slaughter of animals, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the training of imams, the construction of mosques, and the placement of religious counselors in prisons, hospitals, and public and private schools.
The government continues to state its willingness to incorporate into French society a type of Islam that would be independent of its roots in any one country of origin. For many years, it left the "handling" of Muslims to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and more recently, to other African countries and Turkey. The establishment of an "Islamic religion of France" has been delayed by these organizational issues, contributing to the present failure to effectively acknowledge Islam as France's second-largest religion.
A number of disputes have come to the forefront in recent years with regard to the development of Islam's visibility. There are relatively few mosques compared to the number of Muslims living in France; one count carried out this year tallied only 1,554 mosques, places of worship, and prayer spaces. Most of these spaces are in individual homes where there is little room to receive the faithful. Despite this, many municipalities have refused to authorize the construction of new places of worship. Moreover, there are very few schools of the Islamic faith compared to Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish learning institutions.
Another sticking point is the slaughter of animals according to Muslim rites. This practice raises disputes each year at the traditional sacrifices for the Eid El Kebir holiday, which marks the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan. The custom is for people of sufficient means to slaughter sheep and distribute the meat to family, friends, and the poor. In the past, the demand for properly performed holiday sacrifices has far outstripped supply, leading to the establishment of illegal slaughterhouses, at times even in private apartments. Such arrangements have created frictions with neighbors over issues of hygiene and culture. Regulations have gradually loosened up, making it possible to reduce the number of illegal slaughterhouses, but there are still not enough authorized facilities to handle the need.
These issues pale, however, in comparison with the controversy over the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women as a sign of their faith. (see related article on Germany). The conflict goes back to 1989, when three young girls were expelled from a high school for wearing scarves on the grounds that the religious symbolism conflicted with the secular environment of French schools.
Since then, the controversy has grown exponentially. The Conseil d'Etat, France's highest judicial body, authorized the wearing of scarves at school in 1989, but this right has been challenged periodically. As recently as April, Minister of Education Luc Ferry and the prime minister announced a law aimed at reinforcing secularism in schools. In July, President Jacques Chirac launched a commission on secularism to head off any changes to the law.
A number of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum are currently advocating a headscarf ban and the expulsion of girls who refuse to comply. This position is under heavy criticism from intellectuals and Muslim organizations alike. These critics say such a move would be tantamount to preventing Muslim girls from attending public school, since wearing the headscarf is considered a religious obligation by many female followers of Islam.
Attempts to curb the wearing of headscarves are spreading in a climate of hostility towards Islam, and some analysts feel the controversy is indirectly fueling anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in French society. What is clear from the dispute, and the others that characterize the "integration pains" of Muslims, is that while Islam has a long way to go in its adaptation to French society, the reverse is also true.