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April 1995, Volume 2, Number 4

Muslim Immigrants in France

There are three to five million Muslims in France, including one million who are French citizens. There have been Muslims in France since the beginning of the 20th century, but it was only in 1967 that their number topped one million.

France on January 1, 1994 had 58 million residents. The French population has been increasing by about 400,000 annually, due to 300,000 more births than deaths, and 100,000 immigrants. Half of all French immigrants, and 40 percent of the asylum seekers, are from Africa.

In the past, France had an assimilationist attitude toward immigration--immigrants were expected to learn French and to conform to French values in public. Muslims have begun to challenge assimilation just as France, like other industrial countries, is debating the best way to integrate minority immigrants.

In Fall 1994, the French government officially banned girls who wear "ostentatious" headscarves from attending public schools. Some Islamic associations immediately attacked the headscarf ban as a symbol of French intolerance for minorities; 22 percent of the Muslims polled in October 1994 thought that Muslim girls should be allowed to wear headscarves to school. One-third of the Muslims polled agreed that integration into French society means that an individual becomes less Muslim.

Muslim girls in France face special challenges. At home, boys are favored, but in school, Muslim girls reportedly do better than Muslim boys because they are treated more equally than at home. Many Muslim families reportedly arrange marriages for their daughters at age 18 and, if the girl objects, she sometimes must make a break from her family. Other girls go to the other extreme, becoming fundamentalist to gain power within their families.

On March 21, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights issued its annual report on human rights in France. The report expressed alarm over the continued spread of intolerance toward foreigners, especially toward those of North African origin. The Commission reiterated its criticisms of a series of laws passed in 1993 tightening controls on immigration and restricting access to the French nationality.

One of the laws passed in 1993 tightened the regulations on marriages between immigrants and French citizens. Immigrants married for more than one year to a French citizen, or who are parents of a child born in France, generally cannot be deported. Previously, the government granted long-term residence cards to such immigrants. Under the 1993 law, the government rarely grants work, study or residence permits.

The two-year-old law, according to a government spokesperson, was designed to stop marriages of convenience. Mayors have the power to review marriage applications and refuse those they think are for convenience. An organization called Lune de Miel says that the law has left many partners in honest marriages between an immigrant and French citizen without access to social services and employment.

French authorities are continuing to stop dark-skinned men to check their documentation. The random checks began in fall 1994 after five French citizens were slain in Algeria. French authorities worry that the violence plaguing Algeria will move to France. After the hijacking of an Air France plane from Algiers, French citizens backed the crackdown.

"The zero generation" is a term coined to describe the French born-children of immigrants parents, who have no opportunities due to a stagnant French economy. They are frequently turning to fundamentalism.

In Algeria, a civil war between Islamic fundamentalists and the military government threatened to add to the 800,000 Algerians and three million French citizens of Algerian origin in France.

Algeria, which has 28 million people and a per capita GDP of $1800, won its independence from France in 1962. A new 1989 constitution permitted political parties to contest elections but, when it appeared that fundamentalists would win the general election, the government annulled the election, with the support of the French government.

Since then, there has been fighting between Islamic militants and government troops, and 300 to 600 militants headed to Algiers were reportedly killed by government troops in an ambush near the end of March.

Barbara Borst, "Paris Targets Marriages to Limit Immigration," Inter Press Service, March 25, 1995. National Public Radio, March 28, 1995. Angeline Oyog, "Intolerance of Immigrants Growing in France," Inter Press Service, March 21, 1995. Gregory Katz, "France cracks down on immigrants," Calgary Herald, March 19, 1995. News From France, March 3, 1995. Nora Boustany, "Algerians Fear National Self-Destruction as Rulers, Islamic Militants Battle," Washington Post, March 15, 1995, A21.