The Crescent and the Tricolor

France today has more Muslims than practicing Catholics, and couscous has arguably become the country's national food

When, two days before Bastille Day in 1998, the French national soccer team upset Brazil 3-0 to win the World Cup, a million people staged an impromptu parade on the Champs-Elysées. Within days it had become a cliché to call it the most important demonstration since the liberation of Paris from the Germans, in 1944. It was a celebration less of French sports than of French society -- and of immigration's role in that society. As people poured into the streets from all corners of the capital and the country, it became clear what a multiracial society France had become. About 13 percent of the population is immigrant, but the percentage in Paris is much higher. Tens of thousands of blacks and tens of thousands of Asians and hundreds of thousands of Arabs were in the streets along with native-born whites, who call themselves français de souche ("root French"). They were celebrating a team that included players born in Ghana and Guadeloupe. And they were celebrating especially the brilliant midfielder Zinédine Zidane, born in Marseille of Algerian parents, who had scored two goals in France's triumph.

Zidane had been suspended three weeks earlier for one of the dirtiest fouls in World Cup memory. But now he was living proof that France was great because France was welcoming. In the coming months a leading French novelist would write Zidane: The Novel of a Victory, and President Jacques Chirac would award Zidane and his teammates the Légion d'honneur. As a Frenchman boasted afterward, "Germany's full of Turks -- and there's not a single Turk on the German football team." People marked a changing attitude toward immigrants in general and Arabs in particular, and named it the Zidane effect. It resembled the way certain backers of a Colin Powell run for the presidency in 1996 came to feel about race -- suddenly viewing as solved something they'd previously thought of as a remedy-defying problem, and feeling good about themselves as a result.

Not since fifteenth-century Spain has any Western European country had so substantial a Muslim presence. And for years immigration from the Islamic countries has looked destabilizing, as tension has increased between the children of Arab immigrants (beurs and beurettes, as they're called) and alarmed whites who question their assimilability. In 1990 the Lyon suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin saw days of looting and burning. Although unorganized, it was understood less as a rampage than as a protest against the beurs' marginalization. Last year violence erupted in France's small towns -- most spectacularly Vauvert, a village between Montpellier and Nîmes, where "bandes des jeunes"(French journalistic code for nonwhite youths) trashed the center for several days. Strasbourg has seen a New Year's Eve tradition develop that resembles Halloween Devil's Night in Detroit. Bonfires are lit, buildings are vandalized, and last New Year's Eve dozens of cars were set on fire. Other small cities suffer sporadic sprees of vandalism, which their perpetrators call "rodeos" -- Nancy, for instance, and Rennes, which is now patrolled by gardiens de nuit, a sort of French version of New York's Guardian Angels. At times France's racial problem appears to resemble the situation in America in the 1960s.

But the comparison can be misleading. Generally speaking, it's a smaller problem than the American race problem. Beurs are less visibly different, discrimination against them tends to be on the basis of class rather than race, and when they assimilate into society (or make a pile of money), they're French, period. But in one respect it's a more serious problem, because differences of religion are involved. Islam envisions an Islamic state to protect its rights. France, meanwhile, has one of the most stringent legal separations of Church and State in the world. This creates constant conflict between a state based on the Rights of Man and a religion that, strictly interpreted, holds that all legitimate political power flows from the Koran.

The excellent halal (the Islamic equivalent of kosher) butchers who have brought first-rate meat to the poorest neighborhoods have been an outright windfall for French culture. Other imports -- such as the female-circumcision rites practiced by certain African Muslim immigrants -- are so repugnant to French sensibilities that they have been outlawed. Still others are allowed but tie the country in knots. Since the late 1980s the question of whether Muslim girls should be allowed to wear their traditional scarves to school has come up year after year, in a way that might seem irrational unless one considers the role of French schools as "mills of citizenship" -- and not just of citizenship but of Frenchness. The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, first made his reputation as Education Secretary with anguished soul-searching on the headscarf question.

But the latest wave of immigration threatens to change what Frenchness means. Islam has left Protestantism and Judaism far behind and is now the second religion of France. No official national statistics are kept on religion and race in France (the country, with its long tradition of equality of citizens before the state, holds such distinctions -- officially, at least -- to be meaningless), but the best estimates of the country's Interior Ministry put France's Muslim population at four million, two million of them French citizens. The historian Alain Besançon has estimated that given the meager rates of churchgoing in France (below five percent), the country now has more Muslims than practicing Catholics. In 1994 Le Monde found that 27 percent of Muslims were believing and practicing -- which means that Islam may someday be the country's predominant religion if one measures by the number of people who practice it.

But Islam's weight in France is even greater than that, particularly for the generation to come. For one thing, immigrants and their descendants are concentrated in a few important cities and regions (Paris, Marseille, Rhône-Alpes, Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing). For another, although France's non-Muslim population has replaced itself at roughly the Western European rate of 1.3 births per woman, immigrants from Islamic countries have been three to four times as fertile for quite some time. The birth rate among Algerian women was 4.4 in 1981 and 3.5 in 1990. That among Moroccans was 5.8 and 3.5 in those years, and among Tunisians 5.1 and 4.2. These numbers do show natality declining toward the national average, but only slowly. Meanwhile, the disparity in birth rates and the concentration of the Muslim population means that in certain French metropolises a new generation of citizens -- those born from the 1970s to the 1990s -- is one third Muslim.

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Christopher Caldwell is the senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a columnist for New York Press. He writes regularly on books for Slate.

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