The Long and Troubled History of the French Republic and Islam

Emmanuel Macron is the latest in a long line of French presidents who have sought reform of the faith

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The Long and Troubled History of the French Republic and Islam
Le Debut: “Napoleon Bonaparte haranguing the army before the Battle of the Pyramids, 1798” by Antoine-Jean Gros. Castle Museum, Versailles, France/ Getty images

French public debate on Islam has recently sparked a wave of international controversy.

President Emmanuel Macron intervened on Al Jazeera to correct “misunderstandings” about his policy and accused The Financial Times of “distorting” one of his speeches.

Foreigners have indeed some difficulty in apprehending the way the French concept of laïcité defines the state’s relationships with the various faiths, in a country where religious observance is quite low and irreligion widespread. But it is also true that most French people are unaware of how deeply their history with Islam runs, limiting it too often to the past decades when it became second in France, surpassing Protestantism and Judaism.

The fact is that the French Republic was only five years old when Napoléon Bonaparte, its most talented general, disembarked in Alexandria with his expeditionary force. The launching of this campaign of Egypt, on July 1, 1798, took place, according to the Revolutionary Calendar, on Messidor 13, year VI, since the founding of the Republic was supposed to open a brand new era.

Bonaparte published a proclamation in Arabic, wherein he portrayed himself as the friend of the local population and its ally against the Mamluks, the former slaves who ruled Egypt on behalf of Constantinople. “People of Egypt, they have told you that I come to destroy your religion, but do not believe it. On the contrary, I come to restore your rights and punish the usurpers, since I respect Allah, his prophet and the Quran more than the Mamluks,” the proclamation read.

After defeating the Mamluks, Bonaparte settled in Cairo, where he organized a splendid celebration of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. However, all his display of splendor and respect for Islam did not prevent a popular uprising in the capital city that would be mercilessly crushed in October 1798. Four months later, the ambitious general moved to invade Palestine, but failed to take the strategic stronghold of Acre. He withdrew his forces to Egypt and, after a second celebration of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, sailed back to France.

Bonaparte’s successor, Gen. Jean-Baptiste Kleber, had to quell another uprising in Cairo before he was murdered, in June 1800, by an Aleppo-born militant. The new governor of Egypt, Gen. Jacques-Francois Menou, converted to Islam and took the name Abdallah, then married an Egyptian woman from a noble family. The Arab council he chaired in Cairo pledged that “French and Egyptians are now one people, united by a strong and sincere friendship.” But in August 1801, Menou’s troops were defeated by an offensive coordinated between the Ottomans and the British. That was the end of French Republican adventurism in Egypt. Soon Bonaparte, now the supreme ruler in Paris, would abolish the Republic to establish his own personal empire as Napoléon I.

While the French expedition in Egypt lasted only three years, the invasion of Algeria in 1830 ushered in 132 years of French rule. The colonial campaign started just before another revolution established the July Monarchy in Paris. The French military first expelled the Ottoman garrisons, then waged a total war that eventually crushed, in 1847, the local resistance led by Emir Abdelkader.

When the French Second Republic was founded in February 1848 on the ruins of the July Monarchy, it annexed French Algeria, dividing it between three départements – Algiers, Oran and Constantine – while the rest of the territory remained a military zone. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoléon I’s nephew, became Emperor of the French as Napoléon III in December 1852, replacing the Second Republic with his Second Empire. His imperial rule would appear to be more sensitive to the plight of the local population than the Republics that preceded and succeeded it.

At the time, French and other Europeans were moving to Algeria and acquiring, through force, coercion and assistance from the French authorities, vast swaths of Arab land and property. During his two visits to Algeria, Napoleon III was appalled by this policy and decided to curb it in favor of the native population. In 1860, he envisioned an Arab kingdom allied with the French Empire, but the now-exiled Emir Abdelkader declined to join the venture. Five years later, Napoléon III decreed that the local Algerians would be French subjects whose personal status remained based on religious law: sharia for the country’s 3 million Muslims and the Mosaic law for its 30,000 Jews.

The settlers in Algeria were incensed. They viewed this move as a pro-native bias in Napoléon III’s policy. They accused the French military of protecting the local population against an aggressive colonization. This explains why the Third Republic, as soon as it replaced the Second Empire in September 1870, worked to erase its “pro-native” Algerian legacy. Authority over French Algeria was transferred from the Ministry of War to that of the Interior. Algerian Jews became full-fledged French citizens, while Algerian Muslims remained mere subjects, creating a schism that polarized the Algerian population into “Europeans” – made up of foreign settlers and local Jews – and “Muslims.”

This was a pivotal moment in the history of the French Republic with Islam, when a strictly religious identity was assigned to the Algerian population in order to deprive it of its rights. This dynamic only intensified after the 1871 uprising against French rule. The bloody repression led to a mass process of dispossession of the local peasantry, to the benefit of new waves of Spanish, Italian, and Maltese settlers, all of whom would swiftly acquire French citizenship. So determined was the Third Republic to control the Algerian population and exclude the majority from citizenship that it even sought to reverse the secular gains made elsewhere.

Since 1801, the relationship between the French Republic and the Catholic Church had been governed by a pact with the Pope known as the concordat. But in 1905, France adopted the law of separation between Church and State, effectively ending the concordat. However, in Algeria, that law was never truly implemented.

In 1903, the French-ruled Algiers court had already stated that a Muslim-born person did not need to be observant in order to be categorized as Muslim by the French administration.

This assignation of an ethno-religious qualification was only a means to exclude the vast majority of the Algerian population from the rights reserved to “Europeans.” Between 1865 to 1915, fewer than 2,400 “Muslims” – many of them converts to Catholicism – were granted French citizenship.

In 1907, the French administration in Algiers further consolidated the idea of an official Islam, funded and run by the French, that would control a dense network of mosques, imams, muftis, and charities as a strategic tool of domination.

Since the 1905 law of separation is the very founding block of French laïcité, as the specific brand of French secularism is called, it is only logical that the Algerian exception to this much celebrated principle generated a double-standard policy: Instead of the neutrality that was supposed to prevail in the relationship between the French Republic and the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths, a de facto concordat remained in place in Algeria, with the French Republic interfering on a daily basis in Muslim affairs.

In 1936, the left-wing Popular Front proposed to extend equal rights to 24,000 “French Muslims,” but the uproar of the European population in Algeria condemned this initiative. In 1944, the Free French granted equal rights to 65,000 out of 7.5 million “French Muslims,” but this limited gesture, compared to the 1 million “Europeans,” was too little and too late to stop the rise of Algerian nationalism that eventually erupted in a liberation war in 1954. The post-WWII Fourth Republic did not survive this colonial conflict and, after a coup in Algiers in 1958, was replaced by the Fifth Republic, whose founder and first president, Charles De Gaulle, negotiated the independence of Algeria in 1962.

France had already relinquished its protectorates over Morocco and Tunisia, in 1956, and was now focused on its metropolitan territory. However, the need for cheap manpower to sustain the industrial growth led to a mass immigration from the Maghreb to France where, by 1968, over 600,000 North Africans had already moved.

Confronted with rising unemployment at home, in 1974, Paris suspended economic immigration from North Africa. But the “family reunion” program changed the very nature of this population, with a second generation of French citizens born and raised in France. In May 1981, after 25 years of right-wing governments, the Socialist François Mitterrand was elected president, nurturing the expectations of the activist fringe of this second generation.

French mobile policemen escort Muslim women for an identity control on the Trocadero square in Paris, on September 22, 2012/ Eric Feferberg/ AFP/ Getty images

Incidents of racist violence and police brutality led in October 1983 to the launching of a “March for Equality,” inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States. Two months later, 100,000 people converged on Paris for what was then described as the Marche des Beurs (Beur being a popular French equivalent for Arab). Mitterrand received a delegation of militants whose demands included the right to vote in local elections for alien residents, a proposal already included in the platform of the Socialist party. They argued that the more involved first generation immigrants became in French political life, the smoother the integration of the French second generation would be. But Mitterrand, wary of the rising tide of the far-right of Jean-Marie Le Pen, stalled on the Marche’s demands.

This led to a disturbing pattern in which each gesture aimed at appeasing the growing far-right only facilitated its growing popularity.

In the March 1986 parliamentary elections, Le Pen became one of his party’s 35 MPs to enter the National Assembly. Their fearmongering propaganda targeted a mythical “Muslim invasion” of France – despite there only being some 4 million Muslims out of 57 million French residents.

The actual figure of the Muslim population is still at the center of heated debate. Here again, history matters. France still bans ethno-religious statistics, a legacy of the French resistance that fought the collaborationist Vichy census of the Jews during the Nazi occupation. But there is no doubt that France hosts both Europe’s largest Muslim and largest Jewish community, the latter estimated at half a million people.

Since French liberation in 1944, the Jewish community has had a representative body, the CRIF (an acronym of Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions), distinct from the religious leadership of the Jewish Consistory.

The Ministry of Interior tried to promote a similar Muslim religious leadership – a Muslim equivalent of the Consistory rather than of the CRIF – in order to have an institutional partner to address Muslim religious issues. These include the certification of halal food, the training of imams, the organization of the Hajj/pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslim graveyards, and so on. This new body became known as the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM).

But forming a representative body for French Muslims would prove to be tricky. Sunni Islam has no hierarchy. Also, France’s Muslim community is extremely diverse, with origins in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and southeast Asia, each with their own traditions and communal ways. A uniform body that aimed to represent all of France’s Muslims would face numerous challenges.

The first CFCM was established in June 2003 after an election supervised by the French administration where each mosque would send delegates according to its surface in square meters. The French laïcité had found no better way to reconcile its refusal to admit religious constituencies and its demand for a modicum of representation.

Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, hoped that this Muslim institutionalization would help his own presidential ambitions. Jacques Chirac, the president and his rival, had been re-elected in May 2002 with 82% of the votes against Le Pen.

Chirac, eager to rein in Sarkozy, empowered in July 2003 a special commission on “the implementation of the principle of laïcité in the Republic.” Five months later, this commission proposed that Yom Kippur and Eid al Adha, the most important Jewish and Muslim holidays respectively, would replace in the French republican calendar two Christian-based holidays. The long list of proposals also included the national education teaching of Arabic and of religious creeds. But Chirac decided to follow only one of those numerous suggestions and draft a law banning visible religious signs in public schools. Even though the Jewish kippa, the Sikh turban, and the great crosses were mentioned, this law, passed on March 2004, clearly targeted the Muslim veil.

The French president had chosen such a hard line to marginalize Sarkozy as too “soft” on Islam. One year after Chirac had reached unprecedented popularity in the Muslim world for opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the “veil law” generated widespread criticism of France in those very same countries.

The constant progression of the far right, and the wide dissemination of its anti-Islamic discourse, have only benefited from the wave of jihadi terrorism that has repeatedly struck France since 2015

Even though the controversy was less intense than the current one, the confrontational dialectics remains the same. Sarkozy became president in 2007, followed by François Hollande in 2012 and Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the latter after defeating Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter, with this time only 66 percent of the vote. The constant progression of the far right, and the wide dissemination of its anti-Islamic discourse, have only benefited from the wave of jihadi terrorism that has repeatedly struck France since 2015.

The paradox is that each recent crisis, while triggering stormy new debates on Islam and its “radicalization,” also demonstrates how deeply French Muslims have become integrated in the country where the vast majority of them are now born.

For instance, a collective of Muslim intellectuals recently offered its own republican synthesis: “Allowing each person to take charge of his destiny, while at the same time integrating himself in the republican melting pot, represents in our view all the beauty – and the difficulty, of the French paradigm, and in no way conflicts with the private beliefs of each person.” And those Muslim intellectuals insisted on disseminating their text in English as well, in order for their voices to be heard, even overseas.

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