French Suburbs Becoming ‘Separate Islamic Societies’

France’s decrepit city suburbs are becoming ‘separate Islamic societies’ cut off from the state, according to a major new study that examines the spread of Islam in France.

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Muslim immigrants are increasingly rejecting French values and identity and instead are immersing themselves in Islam, according to the report, which also warns that Islamic Sharia law is rapidly displacing French civil law in many parts of suburban Paris.

The 2,200-page report, “Banlieue de la République” (Suburbs of the Republic), is the result of a one-year research effort into the four “i’s” that comprise the heart of the debate over French national identity: Islam, immigration, identity and insecurity.

The report was commissioned by the influential French think tank L’Institut Montaigne, and directed by Gilles Kepel, a well-known political scientist and specialist in the Muslim world, together with five other French researchers.

The authors of the report show that France, which has between five and six million Muslims (France has the largest Muslim population in European Union), is on the brink of a major social explosion because of the failure of Muslims to integrate into French society.

The report also shows how the problem is being exacerbated by radical Muslim leaders who are promoting the social marginalization of Muslim immigrants in order to create a parallel Muslim society in France that is ruled by Sharia law.

The research was primarily carried out in Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil, two suburbs in north-eastern Paris that were ground zero for Muslim riots in 2005. Clichy and Montfermeil form part of the district of Seine-Saint-Denis, which has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in France.

Seine-Saint-Denis, which the report describes as a “wasteland of de-industrialization,” is home to more than 600,000 Muslims (primarily from North and West Africa) out of a total population of 1.4 million.

“In some areas, a third of the population of the town does not hold French nationality, and many residents are drawn to an Islamic identity,” the report says.

The study says that Muslim religious institutions and practices are increasingly displacing those of the state and the French Republic, which has a strong secular tradition.

For example, French schools, which are rigorously non-religious, have traditionally been seen as having the role of training and socializing young citizens in the secular values of the French Republic. However, many Muslim pupils refuse to integrate and often boycott school dinners if the food is not halal [religiously permitted in Islam], the report says.

The survey also points to differing social attitudes when it comes to marriage, for example. The report says that although most people in France do not object to mixed marriages, “in the suburbs we were surprised to find a very large proportion of Muslim respondents who said they were opposed to marriages with non-Muslims.”

The researchers also looked into the reasons behind the 2005 riots, which they said had called into question modern France’s founding myth, namely “the implicit shared belief that the nation was always able to integrate people.”

Islamic values are replacing those of a French Republic which has failed to deliver on its promise of “equality,” the report says, and the residents of the suburbs increasingly do not see themselves as French.

But the report adds that the French state is not primarily to blame for this and that many Muslim immigrants simply do not want to integrate into French society.

Although resentment in the poor suburbs has social roots (primarily a lack of jobs), the report says the rioters expressed frustration in a vocabulary that is “borrowed from Islam’s semantic register.”

The report points out that the suburbs of Clichy and Montfermeil have been at the center of one of France’s biggest urban renewal projects. Many physical barriers to integration have been removed, and efforts have been made to plug the area into public transport networks and improve public safety.

Nevertheless, low educational achievement is endemic among the Muslim population. This, in turn, is turning France into a “divided nation.” Most Muslim youth are “not employable.” More than 20% of the residents of Clichy and Montfermeil leave school without a diploma (about 150,000 people per year), according to the report. The unemployment rate for Muslim youth in the suburbs of Paris is around 43%.

These drop-outs enter a cycle of social exclusion negatively shapes their lives and those of their children. Many Muslim youth turn to “deviant behaviors across the range of incivilities in a parallel economy in which drug trafficking is the most prominent.”

“One is struck by the high birth rates among newly arrived families from the African Sahel. The mothers work long hours and their young children are under-supervised by the education system, thus threatening their social integration,” the report says.

Islam is filling the void. The authors of the study are taken aback at the explosion of the halal market in France in recent years and also point out that the term halal has been greatly expanded in its definition. The survey question “do you respect the halal?” highlights the “complexity of different meanings of the word, which in its most restrictive sense means only the dimension of the forbidden food, but may also include a code of conduct, standards and an expression of dominant values, separating the ‘halal’ from ‘haram,’ the lawful or unlawful in many aspects of society.”

The report also describes a proliferation of mosques and prayer rooms in the suburbs. The religious orientations of the mosques are heavily influenced by the national origin of the founder or president of a given mosque.

Islam in Clichy-Montfermeil is structured around two major poles: one pole involves the Tabligh (“spreading of Islam”) movement which is focused on “re-socializing” Muslims on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

The Tabligh movement arrived in Clichy-Montfermeil in the 1980s in the midst of mass unemployment and drugs. Tabligh preachers built their social legitimacy by providing a moral regeneration of young people in distress around a rigorous practice of the precepts of Islam.

The other pole revolves around the figure of the Tunisian imam Dhaou Meskine, who was involved in the launch ofUnion of Islamic Organizations in France (UIOF). The UOIF, which represents the majority of the 2,100 registered mosques in France, is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, which aims to extend Islamic law throughout France.

Meskine also participated in the formation of the Union of Muslim Associations (UAM93), a Muslim lobby group that aims to mobilize Muslims to elect candidates in local elections around Islamic issues. UAM93 has been pushing for the construction of a mega-mosque in Seine-Saint-Denis, although that project has run into difficulties due to a power struggle between Algerian, Moroccan and Turkish immigrants.

The report describes a “new sociology of Muslim believers” that is composed mainly of undereducated low-income immigrants who depend on financial support from Morocco or Turkey, countries that are pursuing their own objectives in France.

The authors of the study also point to a contradiction among Muslims who live in the suburbs: they do not want the French state to interfere in matters relating to Islam, but they also expect the state to improve their lot in life.

The report closes with a warning: “France’s future depends on its ability to re-integrate the suburbs into the national project.”


Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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