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Because of the forty years of Muslim domination of the southern part of today France during the eighth century, the country came into contact with Islam at a relatively early date. Other attempts at penetration continued into the tenth century but were not successful. Throughout the Middle Ages, Muslims left their mark in several regions of France. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a group of Spanish Muslims deported from Spain settled permanently beyond the Pyrenees.

Modern Muslim Presence.

The Muslim presence in France became significant in modern times with the colonization of North Africa beginning in 1830. Algeria became a department of France, although Muslims did not become French citizens, and at the turn of the century the first groups of Algerians, and later Moroccan workers, arrived in metropolitan France. During World War I the migration of more than 132,000 North Africans to take the place of the French as farmhands and in weapons factories was encouraged. More than 15,000 others were called to arms.

Although many of these people were repatriated after the war, the influx into France of workers from North Africa continued until the depression of the 1930s. Because of the severe shortage of manpower, the postwar period witnessed increased blue-collar immigration into France, which peaked in the 1960s, especially from Algeria, Morocco, and later Tunisia. In 1974, in the context of world economic recession, the French government interrupted the immigration of labor. Furthermore, until the early 1980s, it sought to reduce drastically the number of foreign residents, particularly Algerians. After various futile attempts by France to initiate a process of return of foreign residents, it was only in 1984 that the government passed legislation to guarantee and stabilize their residence status.

Meanwhile, the Muslim community in France continued to increase, because of family reunification, and to diversify with the arrival of Turks, Africans (primarily from Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania), Middle Easterners (from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon), and Western and Central Asians (Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Besides workers, increasing numbers of students, professionals, and businesspersons arrived.


French law prohibits the inclusion of obligatory questions concerning religious affiliation in the national census. Although census data concerning “Algerian Muslims” were collected in the 1950s and 1960s, no numbers of French Muslims or Muslims residing in France after this period are available. Today, estimates of the Muslim population in France are based on the estimated number of immigrants from Islamic countries and their descendants. These estimations are thus based on an ethnic understanding of Islam and not on self-declared affiliation. Such estimations of “Muslims” range from about four to five million. Within this group, four subgroups are commonly distinguished:

  • 1.  Immigrants from Islamic countries. The large-scale 1999 survey of the Institut National d ’Études Démographiques (INED) estimates at 1.7 million the number of immigrants from Africa and Turkey (574,000 Algerians, 523,000 Moroccans, 202,000 Tunisians, 196,000 persons from sub-Saharan Africa, 174,000 Turks). In addition, there are approximately 70,000 immigrants from other Islamic countries and a significant number of persons originating from the former French colony of the Comoros, which is estimated at up to 100,000. Finally, an unknown number of illegal immigrants must be added in order to arrive at a comprehensive estimate of this group.
  • 2.  Repatriated Algerians (usually called harkis) who had sided with France during its war with Algeria and had to leave their country on its independence. Estimates of the current composition of this group vary greatly. In 1968, their number was estimated at 85,000. In addition to this group originating from Algeria, there are also some Muslims repatriated from former French Indochina.
  • 3.  French-born Muslims. In France, these Muslims are usually referred to as “second-generation” or simply “young” Muslims. The INED study quoted above considers that the first and second generations descended from African and Turkish immigrants amounted to two million persons in 1999.
  • 4.  French converts to Islam. Reliable estimates about this group of people are not available. Contrary to some other European countries, the public role of converts is very limited in France.

Based on this ethnic definition of “Muslims,” they constitute between 6 and 8 percent of the total population of metropolitan France (the Muslim population of the French overseas territories in Réunion and Mayotte, estimated at about 250,000, is usually not taken into account). According to this estimate, France is the European country with the highest percentage of Muslims and the highest absolute number of Muslim inhabitants. The majority of Muslims residing in France are French citizens. The average number of people with citizenships other than French in this population group was estimated by the INED in 1999 at 40.6% (49.9% for the adult population). The highest proportion of foreigners is found among Franco-Turks (65.7%), the lowest among Franco-Algerians (30.1%). The age structure of the immigrated population from Islamic countries is characterized by the preponderance of young persons. In 1999, 73 percent of this group were under the age of 39. Fifty-six percent of the first French-born generation and 85 percent of the second French-born generation were under the age of eighteen at that time.

The settlement of migrants from Islamic countries has not been evenly spread over French territory. As they were for the most part blue-collar workers, they tended to settle in the major industrial centers, mainly located in the greater Paris region, in the Rhône valley in the South, and in the Lille region bordering Belgium in the north of France. The Islam practiced in France is predominantly North African and is therefore mainly Sunnī. In Alsace, a border region with Germany, which is itself home to Western Europe 's largest group of Turkish immigrants, there is a high concentration of Franco-Turkish Muslims.

Comprehensive statistical data on the socioeconomic profile of these immigrants are largely lacking, because of the government 's resistance to using direct “ethnic” categories in surveys of the French population. It is nevertheless clear that, although a small upper class has emerged inside this part of the population, its geographic concentration in the impoverished and dilapidated housing project areas (banlieues) indicates overall a weak social and economic position. Furthermore, there is abundant evidence of hostility towards and discrimination against people assumed to be of Islamic background.

Muslim Identity.

The question of whether this population can usefully be considered “Muslim,” in terms of beliefs and/or religious practice, has only been studied once in a systematic and quantitative way (Brouard and Tiberj). This representative poll among French of African, Maghribi, and Turkish origin, including immigrants, shows that 66 percent declare themselves to be Muslim and 16 percent without religion, the remaining persons belonging to other religions. Although the level of “practice,” measured as at least monthly attendance at a “religious service,” is similar to that of a non-immigrant “mirror” population (22% versus 19%), the proportion of persons considering their religion “extremely important” is comparatively high (19% versus 4%). Furthermore, 72 percent of self-declared Muslims declare that their religion is “very” or “extremely important” for “guiding their conduct.”

There is consensus among scholars, furthermore, that since the 1980s, a significant process which is variously designated as “re-Islamization” or “Islamic revival” is taking place among the younger French-born generations. This process partly underlies and partly overlaps with the increasing public expression and visibility of Muslim practices in France.

Modes of Organization and Institutions.

The presence of people assumed to be of Islamic faith was, until the late 1970s, most visibly and conceptually tied to lower-class professions open to the employment of immigrants. With the permanent settlement of Muslim residents in France, the material foundations for Muslim life in France have been created, and the strengthened presence of Islam has become visible to a broader segment of French society through the establishment of Muslim institutions, notably mosques and halāl food stores, and a variety of Muslim religious practices.

From 255 in 1983, the number of prayer rooms and mosques in France rose, according to conservative government estimates, to about 1,600 in 2005. The geographic distribution of these prayer facilities gives a rough idea of the distribution of Muslim life. More than four hundred are located in the Île-de-France area including Paris, 219 in the Rhône-Alpes area (capital city, Lyons), 173 in the Provence–Alpes–Côte d ’Azur area (capital city, Marseilles) and 101 in the Nord–Pas-de-Calais region (capital city, Lille). Although French legislation does not allow for the establishment of confessional cemeteries, there are designated enclosures for Muslims in more than sixty cemeteries, as well as one exclusively Muslim cemetery in metropolitan France that was created during the First World War.

Since the early 1990s, half a dozen institutions of higher education in Islamic sciences have been set up, primarily in the Paris area. These institutes, which also offer a stage for the expanding group of French Muslim scholars and intellectuals, offer courses taught in Arabic and/or French. Although most of the students do not attend these classes for professional reasons, several of these institutes also aim to train imams and educators. As of 2001, two Muslim high schools had been set up, and other projects were in the preparation stage. The prospect of adding a Muslim element to the vast state-sponsored confessional school system is slowly becoming more realistic. The number and variety of Francophone Muslim media have dramatically increased since 1990. This development has strongly contributed to the emergence of a national Muslim audience, as does the incipient Muslim music industry that is emerging today.

To varying degrees, French Muslim institutions and practices are affected by the secular legal framework of France that establishes a comparatively strict separation between state and religion. The most important element of this framework of laïcité (laicism), whose central laws were adopted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is that the state neither recognizes nor subsidizes religions, as laid down in a law of December 9, 1830. (This law does not extend to the eastern departments of Alsace and Lorraine, where the nineteenth-century concordat is still in place; it is not applied to Islam.) More importantly, the law of 1830 and subsequent laws and decrees also allow for significant direct or indirect state subsidies of newly-built religious buildings, including mosques. It must also be noted that the overwhelming majority of mosque associations are registered as cultural (and not religious) associations, which entitles them to public funding. Although the Republic legally guarantees freedom of religion, an important number of cases exist in which unfavorable administrative or political decisions make it impossible for Muslims to do so. The wearing of head coverings, the sacrifice of animals on the Feast of Sacrifice (ʿīd al-Adhā), the construction of mosques, the appointment of state-employed Muslim chaplains to the army and prisons, the establishment of Muslim enclosures in public cemeteries, and the creation of Muslim schools can all prove sometimes problematic or simply impossible for Muslims.

The French State and Islam.

Islam was put on the political agenda in France during the first so-called “Islamic-veil affair” in 1989 and has remained there ever since. Debates on Islam are at times extraordinarily intense, as witnessed during the discussions leading up to a 2004 law prohibiting, inside public schools, headscarves and other items declared to be “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation. Importantly, these debates are only to a limited degree about the threat of terrorism or the question of how to reconcile Islam with the principle of laïcité, considered by many to imply the privatization of religious or other subnational identities. More generally at issue are the conditions and criteria defining the toleration and assimilation of Muslims as a post-colonial minority in France.

The regular state interventions into internal Islamic matters and the disregard for the principle of separation of state and religion have to be seen in this light. Since 1989, the government 's main efforts in the field of policies on Islam have been concerned with the creation of a unified representative body of Muslims. This body was to supplement existing Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish institutions of this type. In 2003, this institution emerged as the French Council of Islamic Worship (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman—CFCM) in the form of a nonreligious association as defined in the law of 1901. According to its statutes, the CFCM aims to defend the dignity and interests of Islam in France; to favor and organize the sharing of information and services between places of worship; to encourage dialogue between religions; and to provide the state with representatives of Muslim places of worship. twenty-five regional branches have been created. Members of the various national or regional branches of the Council are elected by delegates of places of worship, the number of which is proportional to the area occupied by the building.

The CFCM marks in certain respects a rupture with earlier modes of state governance of Islam. For a long time, the French government had relied in its policies on the Grand Mosque of Paris (GMP) and on the network of mosques associated with it. The GMP, built by the French Republic after the First World War in gratitude for the services of Muslim soldiers during the war, has been controlled since 1957 by the Algerian state. During the consultations preceding the creation of the CFCM, successive governments became increasingly concerned with the degree to which their Muslim partners actually represented the Muslim communities and started to broaden the scope of Muslim partners considered acceptable to the state. Ultimately even the highly controversial Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), commonly regarded as fundamentalist and linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, was included in the CFCM. However, although the government included various independent Muslim personalities during the consultations prior to the CFCM 's creation, the latter 's structure, based as it is on places of worship, works to strengthen the position of France 's major Muslim federations. Today, the CFCM is dominated by the GMP, the National Federation of French Muslims (FNFM), closely related to Morocco, and the independent UOIF. Moreover, contrary to the government 's proclaimed aim to work via the CFCM for the establishment of an “Islam of France,” the centerpiece of its policies on Islam consolidates foreign influence on French Islam and ethnic divisions inside the Muslim community. To a certain degree, it also marginalizes French-born Muslims, who are not well represented in the leadership of France 's Muslim federations.



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