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Nadine B. Weibel, Kirstin Calamoneri
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century


Owing to the forty years of Muslim domination of the southern part of the country during the eighth century, France 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 and in spite of the prevailing spirit of the Crusades, Muslims left their mark in several regions of France; this was especially true of the merchant class. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a group of Spanish Muslims deported from Spain settled permanently beyond the Pyrenees.

The Muslim presence in France became significant in modern times with the colonization of North Africa beginning in 1830. Peddlers called turcos came from Algeria after 1850, but it was not until the turn of the century that the first Algerian and later Moroccan immigrants arrived to work on the docks of Marseilles, in the construction of the Paris Metro, and in the mines of northern 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 a great number of those Muslims were repatriated after the war, from the early twenties until the depression of the 1930s waves of laborers returned to France; World War II played a similar role in the transfer of male North Africans, as well as Senegalese, to France. Although a severe shortage of manpower encouraged immigration to France following the war, the 1960s, and especially Algerian independence in 1962, marked the beginning of a flood of Muslim workers from Algeria, Morocco, and later Tunisia. In an attempt to counter its economic problems, in July 1974 the French government interrupted this migration of the labor force. At the same time, it initiated a policy of family reunification, allowing women to join their husbands, which led to the gradual stabilization of the immigrants in their new society.

Meanwhile, the Muslim community in France began to diversify with the arrival of Turks, Africans (primarily from Senegal, Mali, Mauritania), Middle Easterners (from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon), and Western and Central Asians (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan). Besides workers, increasing numbers of students, professionals, and businesspersons arrived, including many North Africans. Through this process Islam gradually became the second most important religion in France.

General Data

. Attempting to quantify the Muslims in France is a delicate task. In fact, the available data only approximate their numbers, because all censuses since 1968 exclude information on religious affiliation. Therefore, only by assuming that certain categories of residents are probably Muslim can an evaluation proceed. Four groups of people are concerned:

  • 1. Foreigners originating from Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries. For example, the 1990 census reported 614,207 Algerians, 575,652 Moroccans, 206,336 Tunisians, and 197,712 Turks.
  • 2. Algerian nationals of Muslim faith, long misnamed harkis or French Muslims. Having sided with France during its war with Algeria, they opted for French citizenship and had to leave their country on its independence. According to official evaluations, this includes nearly 500,000 people, a distinct group whose uneasiness seems particularly striking. Not only do they see themselves as exiles from their former country, but they are also perceived by Algerians in a historical perspective as traitors for their procolonialist views. Nonetheless, their assimilation into French society has not been as successful as they would have hoped. In addition to this group of Algerian nationals, we also find some Muslims of Indian origin repatriated from Indo‐china.
  • 3. The “newly French,” those who were able to attain citizenship by birthright or through naturalization. Their status as citizens permits them an active role in French society. Of all the Muslim groups, it will be their opinion that will count the most in the debate over Islam in France.
  • 4. French converts to Islam, who often play the role of mediator between the Muslim community and the rest of society.

Today, it is generally accepted that the number of Muslims of French nationality is equivalent to the number of foreign‐born Muslims, permitting a rough estimate of nearly four million Muslims in France. This figure represents more than 7 percent of the total population. Thus France appears to be the European country with the greatest percentage of Muslims, as well as the greatest number.

The Islam practiced in France is predominantly North African and is therefore Sunnī, even though there is an intermixing of the various cultures from the whole Islamic world. Certain local characteristics occur; one of the most marked is the concentration of Turks in Alsace, a frontier region where migrants coming from the south intersect with those coming from the east. As a result, in this region the North African Islamic practices predominant in France come into contact with those of a more Middle Eastern nature, which are predominant in Germany.

Muslim settlement has not been homogeneous throughout the French mainland. As they are for the most part blue‐collar workers, they tend to settle the major industrial centers, principally around Paris but also in the south of France, in the Rhone valley, as well as in the east and north. Despite the emergence of an elite group, Muslims as a whole are still more often unskilled or semi‐skilled workers and, when not affected by the rising unemployment, are usually resigned to the lowest‐paying jobs. As a consequence of the family re‐unification policy, French Muslims are a young population—those under thirty are the vast majority. Men out‐number women, although the percentage of the latter is continually increasing. According to the last reliable source—the census of 1990 concerning foreign nationals—statistics indicate 60 percent men to 40 percent women. This varies by community, with percentages larger for women of more recently emigrated populations, such as the Turks.

However, these general statistics do not precisely represent these four million Muslims, as they do not constitute one homogeneous community. In effect, national, ethnic, and community divisions are still very pronounced. Individuals are also divided by generation, rural or urban roots, and familial or social boundaries. But it can be said overall that belonging to the Islamic community, as passed down from one generation to the next, is seldom contested. Despite occasional exceptions precipitated by the confrontation with change that result in a falling away from daily practice, Muslims continue to adhere, at least emotionally, to the religion of their parents. Their sense of belonging is marked especially in their celebration of the two ῾Īds, the celebrations during the evenings of the month of Ramaḋān, as well as the practice of circumcision and funerals.

In spite of the existence of a “silent” Islam associated with the private sphere, which is probably the most widespread form in France, the past fifteen years have witnessed a shift that reflects an ever more public expression of the adherence to the faith.

The Emergence of a Visible Islam

. Previously, Islam in France was basically linked to the workplace—factories and boarding houses—and appeared to have a transient position in society. Since 1974 when the family reunification policy was put into effect, resulting in the progressive stabilization of migrant workers and their families, Islam has become noticeably more visible in housing projects, schools, and the urban setting in general. For many migrant workers, the presence of spouses and children has pushed the idea of returning to their homeland further and further into the future. But the rhythm of daily life has become laborious and filled with conflict in a host society that does not always offer the warmest of welcomes and whose norms and values often remain abstruse for this transplanted population. The affirmation of Muslim religious identity as a means of cultural identity is one possible response to this growing uneasiness.

The first of these affirmations came at the end of the 1970s with the opening of places of worship in residence halls (sonacotra) and on company grounds, such as in the factories of Renault Billancourt. During the autoworkers' strike of 1982–1983, Islam continued to be a factor. During the mediation process, the public became sharply aware of the religious singularity of the Muslim immigrants. At the same time, Muslims took interest in social undertakings at various levels. Many ḥalāl groceries and butcher shops were opened, while the number of prayer halls increased considerably. By 1989, the last official inquiry counted 1,035 of the latter (parliamentary document, National Assembly no. 1348) whereas there were only 255 in 1983 (Journal officiel, January 9, 1984). Women wearing the ḥijāb were increasingly seen with their heads covered on the city streets. From a private and individual religion, Islam moved toward being a public and collective one.


. The French Muslims took full advantage of the law adopted 3 October 1981, which allowed foreigners the right of assembly. In effect, based on the strict separation of church and state practiced in France since 1905, the regulation of religious communities is a matter of individual right. No religion is officially recognized, but the government guarantees freedom of religion as long as this does not infringe on public security or the rights of another religion. The only exceptions to this principle occur in three eastern departments of France, Bas‐Rhin, Haut‐Rhin, and Moselle, whose local civil codes have remained unchanged since the time of the German occupation. These ordinances concerning religion are based on a nineteenth‐century agreement that grants the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches and Jews the right to public worship. Muslims who have settled in that region, constituting more than 8 percent of the population, are conscious of their exclusion from this legal validation.

The Muslims of France have made good use of their right to assemble, for in 1992, ten years after the application of the 1981 law, Muslim associations numbered around 1,300 in all of France.

These associations can be classed into two types: religious and cultural. The religious ones are characterized by a specific religious aim. They generally own their own buildings, sometimes purchased with donated funds. They attempt also to compensate for the deficiencies of their host society with religious teaching. Activities of the religious associations' social networks are held around the prayer room. Mutual aid and assistance based on solidarity between “brothers of faith” are one of their main features. By encompassing ever‐increasing aspects of life, as Islam claims to pertain to all facets of life, and by giving value to their connection with faith, these associations play an undeniable role in the affirmation of religious identity. At the same time, they exert a certain social control in the attempt to impose an Islamic standard.

The forcefulness of the call for the recognition of Islam differs depending on whether one belongs to the more or less radical trend. Those who rally around a slightly “adapted” Islam integrate themselves without major difficulties into the secularity of French society and contrast sharply with others taking up a more militant viewpoint of a radical and pure Islam. The positions of these latter associations can vary greatly, ranging from the pietism of Foi et Pratique (Jamā῾at al‐Tablīgh) to the political movements inspired by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ṣūfī groups of North Africans, black Africans, and Turks.

Besides the purely religious‐oriented associations, there are others for whom religion is not the central theme. These social clubs, often national in scope and always relating to the culture of the homeland, display a less ostentatious adherence to their faith. In much the same way that these traditional cultural associations have emerged, the new generation that is native to France is forming their own associations, such as France Plus, Génération Égalité, and Génération Beur. The predominant aim of these young people, whose secular physical appearance seemingly contradicts their affiliation with Islam, is sure footing on the sociopolitical field, where they have taken up the cry against a country that still considers them second‐class citizens.


. Faced with so many trends and organizations, attempts at coordination and federation have occurred on a national level. The Paris Mosque, often a focus of the discussions on Islam in France, has initiated some of those debates. The statutes of this prestigious institution, which was inaugurated in 1926 during the French occupation of Algeria to honor Muslims who fought on the side of France, have been widely discussed. In fact, despite its attachment to the French Ministry of the Interior, the Algerian government continues to exert control on the activities of the Paris Mosque. This foreign interference is contested by most of the other French organizations. Its most recent director, nominated in April 1992, was the first French citizen to hold such a post. This fact, among others, has helped relieve the enormous tension that existed in the past few years between the Paris Mosque and the FNMF (National Federation of the Muslims of France), which were competing for sole representation of the Muslim community. The current cross‐dialogue seems to be leading to negotiations between the Paris Mosque and other Islamic associations. However, the struggle to be the dominating power continues, focusing on three major groups: the Paris Mosque, the FNMF, and the UIOF (Union of Islamic Organizations of France). The second comprises many associations in eastern France that stem from the UIF (Islamic Union of France), which in turn unifies the associations close to the Turkish Necmettin Erbakan's Millî Görüṣ. The third has seen major expansion since the opening of its theological institute in Nièvre. The UIOF in itself controversial for having accepted funding from Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the repatriated Muslims have also begun to organize.

The visibility of Islam and the proliferation of organizations has placed the second most important religion in France in the center of the discussion on immigration. The French authorities have been alarmed by foreign interference in the affairs of French Islam. Certain countries have intervened in the recruitment of imams, for example. Algeria, in the search for an imam, is ideologically close to the Paris Mosque. Other countries, such as Morocco and Turkey, intervene through diplomatic delegations that counsel those associations unified under the “official” Islam. Still others, such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran, play a less‐defined role through contacts with the major French organizations mentioned above, as well as the AEIF (Islamic Students Association).

Moreover, certain problems related to the structure of Muslim daily life seem difficult to resolve. A few of the numerous examples: the selection of the official to assure the proper slaughter of meat by one of the above organizations who must also obtain the approval of the French government in order to work in the slaughterhouse; the coordination of the dates of the beginning and end of the month of Ramaḋān; the creation of a “Muslim section” in the cemeteries where the orientation toward Mecca is respected; and the inadequate numbers of Muslim leaders to offer spiritual guidance in hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces. The idea of private Muslim schools is regularly debated. Lengthy negotiations on the founding of an official Muslim Institute of Theology, which was to have produced the religious leaders of France, never materialized. In January 1992, the UOIF inaugurated its own school of theology that was not, however, supported by all Muslim associations. For that reason, the FNMF and the Paris Mosque each created its own institute at the end of 1993.

In the 1990s a “ḥalāl businesses” sector has emerged parallel to the mainstream economy, establishing itself in the food, clothing, and cultural industries, for example the press, although this is less developed than in some neighboring countries. Also popular are religious objects and travel agencies that offer pilgrimages to Mecca and voyages to home countries. These businesses also comprise their own import‐export networks covering several European countries.

It is clear that there are indications of an established and stable Islamic community. However, despite its presence, Islam still remains an intangible concept to many. It is this difficulty with definition and the lack of an official interlocutor that led the Minister of the Interior to create the Council for the Reflection on Islam in France (CORIF) on 6 November 1989. This advisory council is composed of fifteen members who represent themselves rather than an association and are charged to lead the study of the problems concerning the Muslim community and to attempt to organize the representation of Muslims in France. However, the legitimacy of the CORIF is sometimes contested, as it is not accepted unanimously by all the associations in France. But the French government has the habit of consulting such advisory boards, as it also created the High Council on Integration and the National Council on Immigrant Populations.

Christian churches have also favored closer relations between Christians and Muslims. France was the first European country where an Office for Relations with Islam was created by the Catholic church in 1973 and where a Churches‐Islam Commission was formed a few years later by the Protestant churches.

In general, the authorities would prefer to have better control over this dynamic Islamic community but are unsure of how to undertake the task. Local governments are trying to stop the expansionist wave of a religion frightening to them by refusing construction authorizations. Certain incidents occurring within French society, such as the terrorist attacks in Paris in 1986, the “headscarf affair”—a debate over the permissibility of religious clothing in public schools—in the autumn of 1989, and the provocative book by Jean‐Claude Barreau, De l'islam en général et de la laïcité en particulier in 1991, compounded by international political affairs, have served to harden public opinion against this community.

It is important to note that Islam continues to be linked with the colonial past in the minds of the French and the Muslims, which exacerbates the passions of both parties. This vibrant second religion in France is constantly reviving the debate on secularity. This debate could lead to the challenge of the principle of secularity in the French government itself.

See also Avrupa Millî Görüş Teşkilati; Conseil Nationale des Français Musulmans; Fédération Nationale des Musulmans de France; Groupement Islamique en France; and Union des Organisations Islamiques de France.


The Muslims of France have inspired a prolific literature that varies in quality. Nevertheless, studies on Islam as a religion are still rare. Rather, researchers have been interested in Islam as a sociological phenomenon. The works listed below discuss the topic from diverse perspectives.

  • Boyer, Alain. L'institut musulman de la mosquée de Paris. Paris, 1992. Historical overview of the Paris mosque.
  • Cahiers d'Études sur la Méditerranée Orientale et le Monde Turco‐Iranien 13 (1992). Special issue: “L'immigration turque en France et en Allemagne.” The first collection of essays on Turkish immigration in France.
  • Etienne, Bruno. La France et l'Islam. Paris, 1989. Original and personal reflection on Islam in France.
  • Etienne, Bruno, ed. L'Islam en France. Paris, 1991. Probably the best collection of essays from varied viewpoints.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Les banlieues de l'Islam. Paris, 1987. The best study to date of the emergence of Islam in France.
  • Krieger‐Krynicki, Annie. Les musulmans en France. Paris, 1985. The first book on the subject.
  • Lacoste‐Dujardin, Camille. Yasmina et les autres de Nanterre et d'ailleurs. Paris, 1992. Interesting study of the daughters of Muslim immigrants from an anthropological perspective.
  • Projet 231 (1992). Special issue: “Musulmans en terre d'Europe.” The most recent collection of essays on the subject.
  • Roux, Michel. Les harkis, ou, Les oubliés de l'histoire. Paris, 1991. Interesting study of Algerian nationals who became French citizens.
  • Wihtol de Wenden, Catherine. Citoyenneté, nationalité et immigration. Paris, 1987. Overview presenting a clear discussion of citizenship and secularity from a distinctly French viewpoint.
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