France, Islam, terrorism and the challenges of integration: Research roundup


Paris demonstration January 2015 (Olivier Ortelpa, Wikipedia)
Paris demonstration January 2015 (Olivier Ortelpa, Wikipedia)

A Nov. 13, 2015 string of terrorist attacks across Paris that killed 129 people has again raised concerns across French society about jihadist violence and ISIS-inspired domestic terrorism. The tragedy comes in the wake of several other attacks in France in 2015, including an attack on an American-owned chemical factory near Lyon in June 2015 and two in January 2015, when 12 people were murdered at the satirical news outlet Charlie Hebdo and then, days later, four hostages were killed at a kosher supermarket.

Like other European nations, France has a long and complicated relationship with the Muslim world and its own immigrant population, many of whom have been in the country for generations. French Muslims are highly diverse, and some are secular while others are observant. One of the policemen killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Ahmed Merabet, was Muslim. Some are at the center of society — soccer player Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseille to Algerian parents, led France to a World Cup victory in 1998 — but large segments of the population remain excluded. Research from INSEE, France’s national statistical agency, indicates that in 2013, the unemployment rate for all immigrants was approximately 17.3%, nearly 80% higher than the non-immigrant rate of 9.7%, and descendents of immigrants from Africa have a significantly more difficult time finding work. The report found that the education and skill levels only explained 61% of the difference in employment rates between descendents of African immigrants and those whose parents were born in France.

According to a 2012 report from INSEE, approximately 11% of the population was born outside the country, primarily Algeria, Morocco and Portugal. For comparison, approximately 12.5% of the U.S. population is foreign born, while the figure for Canada was 20.6% in 2011. In 2013 the number of immigrants living in France was 5.8 million. With arrivals and departures, the increase per year is approximately 90,000 (0.14% of France’s population of 66 million in 2013), with most growth in recent years in immigrants from within Europe — Portugal, the U.K., Spain, Italy and Germany. The average education level of immigrants has been rising over time.

By law the French government is prohibited from asking about or keeping data on its citizens’ race and religion. A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center indicates that 7.5% of French residents are of Muslim descent, but does not indicate their degree of religiosity. However, a 2007 Brookings Institution book, Integrating Islam, estimated there were 5 million French residents of Muslim heritage, approximately 7.8% of the country’s population at that time (64.1 million). The authors, Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse, estimate that the rate of self-affiliation of French residents of Muslim descent with Islam was approximately the same as for French people of Catholic heritage with Catholicism, 66%. This would indicate that 3.3 million French residents were to some degree observant Muslims in that year, or 5.1% of the population. Any such figures should be used with great caution, as they’re necessarily imperfect.

Reactions to the attacks

Examining the January 2015 incident may provide clues about the direction of French society in the wake of another attack. Immediately after the Charlie Hebdo killings there were hundreds of spontaneous mass demonstrations across Europe condemning the senseless violence, defending the liberty of the press and urging tolerance. A January 11 march calling for unity brought together over 1.3 million people, including more than 40 present and former heads of state. In May, France passed a wide-reaching surveillance law intended to improve the ability of the country’s intelligence services to identify potential terrorists. While the law was strongly supported by the government, some condemned it as paving the way for mass surveillance on the order of that undertaken by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States.

In general, French society is more tolerant of religious mockery and satire than some other Western nations. Charlie Hebdo’s fierce independence has long attracted admiration and criticism, as does its relentless pursuit of politicians and public figures who abused the public trust. Nothing was sacred, least of all religion: Child abuse by Catholic priests and violence by self-proclaimed protectors of Islam were both considered fair game. After a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, Charlie Hebdo printed them again to demonstrate the importance of the free press in an open society. Their offices were firebombed in 2011 after an issue that was supposedly “guest edited” by Muhammad, and had since regularly received threats of violence.

The gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, died two days later after being surrounded by French security forces. Born in France to Algerian-immigrant parents, their upbringing was not religious but Chérif, the younger, converted to Islam around 2003 and was arrested in 2005 while preparing to join the war in Iraq; Saïd reportedly trained in Yemen in 2011. A 2014 report from the French National Assembly found that as of last July, 899 French residents had been implicated in Islamist networks.

Secularism and security

France is a secular republic, with a strict separation of church and state, as epitomized by a 2004 law that reasserted the right of the government to exclude “conspicuous” religious symbols such as crosses, skullcaps and headscarves from public schools. In 2011 the law was extended to ban the wearing of full-face veils in public places. According to a 2010 Pew report, before the full-veil ban was passed in France there was widespread support for the measure across Western Europe, with 82% of the public in France supporting it. France’s right-wing party, the National Front, has worked to fan fears over Islam, immigration and terrorism — and to conflate them — part of a larger movement of populist political parties that have grown in influence. Nevertheless, 2014 data from Pew indicate that 72% of the French public had favorable views of Muslims.

At the same time, tracking and neutralizing potential terrorists has long been a concern for French security agencies. The country fought a brutal war in Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, and during the subsequent civil war, the conflict often spilled out back home — in 1995 an Islamic group carried out attacks that killed eight people and injured hundreds across the country. Incidents large and small have occurred since then, including the shooting spree by Mohamed Merah in 2012. In December 2014, 10 people suspected of being part of a jihadist network were arrested, and a charity accused of financing terrorism was shut down. Complicating matters is France’s assertive presence in anti-terrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa: Its air force has carried out raids against ISIS, and it leads operations in Mali against Islamist forces.

Free speech in the crosshairs

The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack differed from earlier terrorist events not only in its scale — it’s reportedly the deadliest in France since 1961 — but also its focus on the press and freedom of expression. Organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have pointed out that 2014 was another particularly violent year, with at least 60 journalists killed worldwide (where the motive could be confirmed) and some 18 other cases still under review. The number killed in 2013 was 70, including Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon of Radio France International. Leaders in the journalism community have spoken of a “new war on journalists.” CPJ continues to monitor countries where there appears to be some amount of impunity for these crimes against the press and cases of murder typically go unsolved.

After the attack the French government, Google, and the Guardian donated the equivalent of $1.8 million to help Charlie Hebdo recover. They published their next issue on schedule, with a press run of 7 million copies, nearly 120 times the regular circulation. The edition was published in at least five languages, including Arabic, with distribution in 25 countries. The cover of the “survivors’ edition” featured a caricature of Muhammad with a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, and the first print run reportedly sold out in hours. Some international news sites reproduced the cover, including theGuardian, while others such as the New York Times did not. The public editor of the Times criticized the publication’s decision.