More French than the French

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Controversies over Islam regularly flare up in France, whether it’s over the wearing of the veil, school dinners for Muslim pupils or the wearing of burkinis on French beaches, an issue which made global headlines in summer last year when the swimwear was banned by around 30 French mayors.

This time about 100 French politicians recently marched on a street in a Paris suburb in protest at Muslims holding Friday prayers in public.

The politicians, wearing tricolor sashes of office and singing the national anthem, disrupted about 200 worshippers on a street in Clichy. They were protesting against what they said was the unacceptable use of public space for prayers, even though the worshippers have nowhere else to go since the town hall took over the room they used for prayers back in March.

The worshippers say they want a “dignified” place to worship and did not enjoy being in the street every Friday. They also said they resented the politicians singing the French national anthem during their protest, even though those who are praying are French citizens.

French politicians are thus once again aggressively demanding immigrants drop their own identities and integrate into French culture and way of life. But because France has been at the receiving end of Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and Nice, there are demands for French Muslims to assimilate, rather than just integrate, into the French way of life and culture.

There is a huge difference between integration and assimilation. Integration basically means that in order to live, let others live, in a fair and free society. But assimilation is tantamount to a loss of cultural, religious, ethnic identity, and an expectation of conformity to the norms of the majority. Most French Muslims can accept the former but outright reject the latter. It is unrealistic for the French to aggressively demand French Muslims to drop their own identities and cultures and start looking, talking, eating, drinking and thinking like a native French person.

France does have a longstanding tradition of demanding immigrants assimilate, dating back to the 19th century when it was used as a policy toward its Jewish population and then toward colonized countries. However, French Muslims are neither Jewish nor are they colonized. They are part of France.

France in fact has the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe. It’s important to remind the rest of the population that the Muslims are French, and that their problems are everybody’s concern. Yet, the place of Islam in society is still very much a contentious question for the French. Considering what they’ve gone through, it would be perfectly normal for a French person to be wary and even frightened of Islam. They have legitimate fears and concerns. After that, prejudices circulate and fear is the response. Islam is also poorly understood in France, poorly explained, and people are scared of what they don’t understand. The question of the headscarf, of religious visibility in public spaces is still viewed as threatening.

There are three longstanding divisive issues in France: Most French people say there are too many foreigners in France, immigrants do not make an effort to assimilate and Islam is incompatible with French values. There is clearly some healing that needs to be done.

The solution is probably a mix of Muslims needing to adapt to French society and French society needing to do more to understand Muslims. But nothing is really being done to help integration. Politicians only contribute to this climate of fear. If these politicians ever lived abroad, they would probably detest the idea of assimilation. They would be loathe to give up their identity and rightly so. So why ask it of French Muslims?


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