France’s vexed history with its Muslim population

Spearhead Analysis – 16.01.2015

By Shayan Malik
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research


The attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 members of staff dead, and the recurring three days of terror that entailed an attack on a Jewish supermarket as well as the targeted shooting of a police officer have raised a number of questions in relation to the security paralysis prevalent within France. However, far more important questions, deeply linked with France’s current security predicament, are much needed to be deliberated upon in order to understand why that country has found itself in the centre of the ‘Islamist’ struggle in Europe. What needs to be understood is that France has had a very peculiar historical experience with its Muslim population that now forms about 10 percent of its total population.

Colonial beginnings

Caucasian-French and Muslim tensions can be traced back to the French occupation of Algeria more than 100 years ago. The subsequent bloody and traumatizing events have had far-reaching consequences that reverberate even today. French occupation of ‘Muslim’ lands, something that haunts the Islamist imagination even today included Syria and Lebanon after World War 2, as well as other countries in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa. No one can deny that colonial occupation of one land by people from another can ever be smooth, but France’s vexed relationship with Algeria till to date is a story of its own. French occupation of that territory was followed by efforts to convert the native Muslim population to Christianity as well as the construction of French-only towns in the Algerian countryside. The cruelty witnessed by the native population eventually led to the massacre of French settlers at the end of World War 2 resulting in reprisal attacks by the colonial authorities that lead to the murder of more than 700 native Algerians.

Algerian immigration to France and developing patterns of isolation

The Algerian war of Independence coincided with the peak of Algerian immigration to France mainly because of social, political and economic reasons. Many North African immigrants had already settled in France during the inter-war period. A large number of Algerians moved to industrial sectors in the north of Paris. After the war, many immigrants did not want to move back to their occupied home country. They found comparatively greater economic and social prospects in France rather than in their politically volatile colonized homeland.

It is important to note that the French state found the droves of Algerian’s entering the country to be a precarious phenomenon and introduced measures aimed at controlling the immigrant population rather than barring its entry. This lead to the creation of the North African Native Affairs Departments in cities across France, where these institutional bodies were tasked with blocking any genuine ‘integration’ into French society. Algerians overwhelmingly found themselves in one of the most low-paid industrial jobs that were to be found in the country. What made matters worse was the inability of the Algerian working class to join unions under government policy along with right-wing attacks on the workers with state complicity. These initial policy measures were to set an ‘isolationist’ trajectory that continues on till today.

The Algerian war of Independence

The Algerian war for Independence was a bloody affair that lasted from 1954 to 1961. The colonial paramilitary police reveled in assassinating and torturing the leaders of the Algerian nationalist movement, apart from keeping the local population under intense supervisory control. October 1961 was perhaps the turning point in France’s vexed history with its minority community. Up to 30,000 Algerian workers marched in the streets of Paris for the independence of Algeria. They were treated with extreme brutality by the French police, resulting in the murder of 600 Algerian protestors. Scenes of the most barbaric horror were witnessed on the day with bodies flowing through the river Seine. It was only three years ago, back in 2012, that French President Francois Hollande ‘acknowledged’ the massacre.

The war in mainland Algeria left more than a million Algerians dead. Poisoning French-Algerian relations further was the French paramilitary group OAS that continued attacking Algerian Muslims over what it saw was the betrayal of its own state in letting go of ‘French’ territory. Moreover, the million French settlers living within various parts of Algeria were given a stark choice by the rulers of the newly liberated country, namely, death or exodus.

Discrimination and Ghettoization in modern-day France

This history is increasingly important to understand in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, since it set up a tense pattern of Caucasian French-Muslim relations that has carried on till date. Muslim and Algerian isolation in France today can be gauged not only from the isolated lives that a large proportion of the former population live’s today in poor banileue’s or suburban towns, but also from the rise of the right-wing Front National lead by Marine Le Pen. Incidentally, the founder of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen was a paratrooper with the OAS reflecting the historical currents embedded within the antipathy that the far-right in France has over immigration.

The Muslim disenfranchisement within France that is owed to forces of history more than anything else saw an outburst with the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris by youth from the community resulting in the declaration of an emergency by the French state. In the aftermath of the riots, there is an even greater feeling within the Muslim community that it is a collective victim of persecution and discrimination, which has been buttressed by the French state’s measures aimed at restricting religion to the private domain.

The clash of values

Most Muslims in France today may condemn the Charlie Hebdo killings, but not all remain comfortable with the right to blaspheme against their Prophet and the French notion of Laicite (France’s version of secularism) aimed at keeping religion out of the public sphere. What is most anachronistic about this situation is that the majority of French non-Muslims support endeavors such as the Burqa ban, doing away with halal meat as well as the curb on street prayer. France’s particular history emanating from the French Revolution enables the majority of its citizens to view organized religion in the public domain with a pinch of salt. The clear division at this moment between the two sides is over whether individuality and its connotations trump abstract dogma or not. Hence, the clash in values is clearly visible. With 700 French citizens fighting alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, there is a clear rise in the radicalization of segments of French Muslims. What needs to be seen is whether France is ready to see this as a historical socio-political problem with deep currents of marginalization or just another security lapse brought about by the rise in global jihadism.