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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Stephanie Giry

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Stephanie Giry

Last Build Date: Mon, 09 Oct 2006 00:02:52 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

France and Its Muslims

Mon, 09 Oct 2006 00:02:52 -0600

The complexities of integration are on dramatic display in France, now home to 4-­5 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population on the continent. A nation that prides itself on its egalitarianism and universal democratic culture, France is struggling to live up to its principles and fully integrate its Muslims into all sectors of national life. Some French and foreign observers have interpreted last November's riots in poor, largely Muslim neighborhoods throughout the country as a skirmish in a broader clash of civilizations. Yet the strife had little to do with yearnings for a worldwide caliphate and much to do with domestic socioeconomic problems. Grasping what has sometimes gone wrong -- and what has mostly gone right -- with the integration of Muslims in France can thus offer clues to the challenges faced by Europe as a whole. The status of Muslims in France is at once much healthier and more problematic than most recent commentary lets on. France's experience with integration has been shaped by a unique combination of history, philosophy, and contemporary concerns, which together have produced a stop-and-start immigration policy and a wariness about Islam. Still, French sociologists agree that the integration of Muslims into French society has proceeded fairly well. Most Muslims in France -- half to three-fifths of whom are believed to be French citizens -- have adopted French cultural norms; they enthusiastically endorse republican values, including laïcité (the French state's aggressive official secularism). They tend to vote somewhat less often and somewhat more to the left than most of the French population, but socioeconomic variables, not religion, account for the differences. Their desire to assimilate has sometimes been met with a form of discrimination fueled by nativism and a deep distrust of Islam that has made it harder for them to find homes and jobs. But what has turned such vexing problems into crushing burdens is the economic stagnation that has afflicted the whole country and defied reform efforts for three decades. The greater problem is that the debate over how to ease these difficulties is now ideologically polarized, having been hijacked by public intellectuals and politicians out of touch with the country's realities. The run-up to France's 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections should be an ideal time for the political class to address the concerns of its Muslim population. So far, however, the front-runners have seemed more interested in using the issue of Muslim integration for their own electoral ends. Even as they have made tepid attempts to increase the visibility of minorities within their ranks and address Muslim concerns in their parties' platforms, some politicians have resorted to scaremongering about security and immigration and have conflated those issues with Muslim integration -- moves straight out of the playbook of the far right. Worse, perhaps, they have tended to treat Muslims as a monolithic community, giving "it" a reason to start feeling stigmatized. If the good news about France's Muslims is that they are already fairly well integrated and show every disposition to be fully so, the bad news is that French elites seem unwilling or unable to help. THE FRENCH EXCEPTION France has experienced large-scale immigration for a century and a half; immigrants and their children and grandchildren now account for almost a quarter of the country's population. Yet the experience has had much less impact on France's collective identity than it has had on, say, the United States'. Thanks partly to a centralized public administration and greater trust in state institutions, French society is far more homogeneous -- and homogenizing. Arguably, France is a more thorough melting pot than the United States, where many "hyphenated" citizens fiercely retain a communal identity alongside their American one. The French model distrusts ethnic or religious characteristics as divisive. In the name of egalitarianism, French law prohibits even identifying citizens on the basis of natio[...]