France's secularism tainted by racism

France's secularism tainted by racism
Feature: Muslims are being vilified as the antithesis of French values and targeted by a rising wave of French racism. Popular stereotypes and government policies all contribute to the problem.
8 min read
23 March, 2015
Muslims are increasingly less tolerated in aggressively secular France [Getty]

It was bound to grow, but the numbers are staggering.

Since the January murders of journalists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine, anti-Muslim hate crimes has spiked by 110 percent. A majority of French citizens think racism is a reasonable reaction to some events, while France far-right is riding high in opinion polls.

And while the Charlie Hebdo outrage may have caused the

     Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a recent poll said 'some behaviour can sometimes justify racist reactions.'

spike, Islamophobia is a much more widespread and incidious phenomenon in France. 

A number of French organisations, including SOS Racisme and Le Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman (CFCM, the French Council of Muslim Culture) the National Observatory against Islamophobia, have documented the hate crimes. There have been 116 "anti-Muslim acts" in France since the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January. The breakdown is: 28 attacks on mosques, and 95 threats including verbal insults and graffiti like "Dirty Arabs", and "Get out Arabs".

These are an increase of 110 percent compared to January 2014, according to the same sources. In 2014, The National Advisory Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), stated in its annual report on racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts that "racism has been steadily on the rise for years".

Another annual report drafted by the government's National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) on levels of intolerance confirmed the previous results and concluded that "the levels of intolerance are apparently on the rise for the fourth year running."

The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) declared that Muslim women, particularly those wearing the hijab, are the main targets with 82 percent of the victims in 2013, some of them were even pregnant.

The discrimination against Muslim women wearing the hijab has increased, according to official statistics. This is particularly so after a 2004 law prohibted the display of all religious symbols in public institutions: no Christian crosses, Jewish yarmulkes or Muslim headscarves and veils (which many outside France would perceive as a violation of personal liberty). The discourse of extreme right parties like the Front National, suggest that visible symbols of Islam like (mosques, headscarves, burqas - are signs of "the Islamisation of France".

Furthermore, in a survey on racism conducted by BVA, nearly 60 percent of respondents said that "some behaviour can sometimes justify racist reactions". Out of 1,000 respondents, 90 identified themselves as "quite racist", while 260 said that they were a "little racist."

The culture of Islamophobia

The rising levels of intolerance are also reflected in the popular mainstream. One of the current bestselling novels in France is Michel Houellebecq's novel Submission. In its first week it sold around 120,000 copies. In his novel, Houellebecq imagines France in 2022, led by a Muslim president (Mohammed Ben Abbes), and describes how polygamy spreads, women become submissive to their husbands; they also leave work and wear hijabs. The novel has been received as 'Islamophobi' in many quarters, though the author denies this.

In 2002, however, Houellebecq was charged with "inciting religious and racial hatred" in an interview about a previous novel Platform, in which he dismissed Islam as "stupid".

In 2014, The French Suicide by Eric Zemmour, a Le Figaro journalist, sold 400,000 copies in three months. The 500-page book argues that France is "rotten from within" because of feminists and women rights, homosexuals and immigrants, particularly Arabs.

And in a 2008 letter to Nicolas Sarkozy - interior minster at the time - the former French star Brigitte Bardot, known for defending the rights of animals, was convicted of hate speech for saying this about Muslims:

"They slit the throats of women, children, our monks, our administrators, our tourists and our sheep, they will slit our throats one day and we will have earned it"

Islamophobia and cultural racism

Islamophobia was officially used by National Advisory Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) in 2014. It is identified as a type of "xenophobia" (an intense dislike, hatred or fear of these perceived to be strangers) and in this case towards Muslims. The manifestations of Islamophobia in France particularly in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo attacks reflect existing and as some argue "elaborated prejudiced beliefs towards Muslims".

Moreover, Islamophobia corresponds with a new form of racism in the post-war era, which is mainly based on culture and difference. The traditional definition of Racism (prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior), is a narrow term and is often associated with the experience of German Nazism.

In fact, in May 2013, France's National Assembly removed the word "race" altogether from all its legislation, including the French penal code. The decision was linked with previous French laws that restrict the use of information related to minority groups. In 1978, France reaffirmed a law that prohibits "the collection and computerised storage of race-based and religious data."

The law followed from the principles of the French revolutions that insisted on laicite: the complete separation between the State and religion. France propagates its laicite regularly. On 26 February, for instance, the French government asked imams to "learn secular values". On 6 February, the French president vowed to defend France's republican ideals. He pledged "to counter radicalisation and defend the very French notion of secularism."

Invoking laicite, the Paris transit authority rejected an advertisement for a campaign in 2012 proposed by CCIF Nous assusi sommes la nation (We too are the nation). The advertisement repainted the famous painting of Jacques-Louis David, Tennis Court Oath: a symbol of the era of the French Revolution, it particularly signified the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to Louis XVI. The repainted version included veiled women, Arab men in hoodies, and visibly orthodox Jews, among other citizens, holding French flags and copies of the oath pledging revolutionary ideals.

France also, practices a "colour blind" model of public policy; there are no public policies regarding ethnic and racial groups unlike the United States and Britain. It has, however, anti-racism laws under the Penal Code including a ban on Holocaust denial in 1990 and extensive policies regarding "immigrants" that directly affect Arabs, Muslims and Blacks in France.

For many French, "immigrant" is a synonym for Arabs, Muslims and Blacks, regardless of where they were born. The "immigrant" population in France today can in fact be classified into three main groups: The first generation - those who immigrated to France - and the second and third generations, or those who were born in France to parents or with grandparents who immigrated.

No more 'rainbow team'

The second and third generations are, in fact, no longer immigrants at all, according to the National institution of demographic studies who classify immigrants "all persons of foreign nationality born outside France. They exclude persons born abroad to French parents."

Yassin, 35 years old, born in France to Algerian parents, is unemployed and looking for a job.

"For them (the native French), we're not French enough, we love our religion more than we love France. They only like immigrants that succeed," Yassin said, holding up the example of France's 1998 World Cup success with a team led by by second generation immigrants like Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry.

That French football team was described in the media as the "rainbow team". Michele Tribalat, an immigration specialist wrote at the time: "In the joy with which the multicoloured team sang the Marseillaise (the national French anthem) and in the joyful nationalism of supporters from all backgrounds: a moment of grace and identification with the nation, a magical day incarnating the ideal of the French melting pot."

The discrimination against Muslim women wearing the hijab has increased.

Most of the existing social science research show that non-white immigrants and their descendants as a group suffer systematic discrimination on the basis of their race, culture, and religion. The problems associated with immigrants like unemployment, security and crime, and the financial problems of the welfare state, etc. are typically interpreted as problems of integration rather than as socio-economic issues. In 2007, the formal president Nicolas Sarkozy created the ministry of immigration and national identity to help "immigrants integrate". It was a key plank in his presidential campaign platform and was designed to attract votes from the extreme right.

Fatima, 40 , is an administrative employee and was born in France to Moroccan parents who immigrated to France in 1970s. They "worked very hard jobs" in order to give their children a better life, she said.

"I am born in France, I do not speak Arabic. It's ironic but my parents wanted me to speak only French to fit better in society. I am a French Muslim, I am both, why should I choose one in order to integrate?"

The Migration Policy Institute MPI wrote on their website "The French government has unveiled a new action plan for integrating immigrants that reasserts a previously abandoned assimilationist policy. The government has decided to require the estimated 100,000 legal immigrants arriving in France each year to sign an "integration contract" when in France. The contract, require the immigrants to attend different workshops and trainings on French language and instruction on the "values of French society." After each workshop a certificate is, and upon successful completion of all workshops, entitles the immigrant to a 10-year residence permit.

Many sociologists, assimilation is directly linked to the "French colonialism ideology". According to Betts (1961) "the myth of assimilation according to which colonised "natives" were to be turned into cultural clones of their colonial masters". The French empire was founded on the belief that France had a "mission civilisatrice", to culturally civilise the natives or colonised.

Moreover, in 2005 an amendment to the law on the repatriated (loi sur les repatries) was passed by the National Assembly. The law required high-school teachers to focus on the "positive values" of what they referred to as "the French presence overseas" notably in North Africa and particularly in Algeria. Researchers and primary school teachers took the lead in opposing the law and the anti-racist group MRAP described the law as "an insult to intelligence, a denial of democracy, a rejection of historical reality and a brake on academic freedom." They also added "contempt for the victims".