The Crescent and the Tricolor

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

In some places France already looks like a Muslim country. One of these places is La Bricarde, a cluster of semi-public low-income apartment towers built in the early seventies at the far northern edge of Marseille. This is part of the Bricarde-Castellane-Plan d'Aou complex, where 8,300 of the poorest people in France live, and where Zinédine Zidane grew up. A quarter of Marseille's population of 800,000 is Muslim, and La Bricarde is a mixture of North African exoticism and Continental decadence. Lotto tickets are the most popular commodity in the rinky-dink variety store that serves the complex. On a fall day recently, in the blistering heat of the central courtyard, a teen-age girl in a tight black sweater walked with two pregnant friends past an old lady in a djellaba. Satellite dishes run up the sides of the towers like buttons on a shirt. There are 700 apartments in La Bricarde, and at least 200 dishes, all of them aimed skyward to pick up signals from Africa: France has one of the least developed cable networks in Western Europe, and Algerian television can't be picked up there except by satellite. Rock bluffs reminiscent of Arizona loom behind the towers. On several hot summer nights in recent years the residents of La Bricarde have staged their own spectacular variant on Strasbourg's rodeo, stealing cars from the city below, setting them on fire, and launching them from the bluffs.

"The future of the city is in north Marseille," says Didier Bonnet, the long-haired and dashing director of the Régie Services Nord Littoral, a social-service organization founded in 1988 to serve the housing projects at Marseille's northern edge. Bonnet also has clients in the center city, but La Bricarde is the focus of almost all of his work, and it worries him. "Unemployment is twenty percent in Marseille," he says, "and fifty percent in certain neighborhoods. This is one of those certain neighborhoods." A quarter mile from La Bricarde is a five-year-old shopping center that is one of the largest in Europe. It was built with government help, on the condition that the store owners hire half their employees from the projects nearby. But the residents have begun to drift back into unemployment. Still, some business gets done. Nordine Taguelmint, who lives in La Bricarde and works for Bonnet, shouted "Journaliste!" to reassure a cluster of four alarmed-looking North Africans whom we interrupted in the middle of what looked like a dope deal as we came down a hill behind the projects. A hundred yards farther on Taguelmint pointed out a brand-new Porsche 911 Carrera, owned by a resident of the project.

Juliette Minces, a sociologist who studies Muslim women, reports that a progressive "ethnicization" of these housing blocks is under way. They have become associated with particular ethnic groups -- Senegalese here, Algerians there -- much the way that American public housing became associated with blacks and Hispanics in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. The residents of Marseille's projects are mostly Muslim, and a majority of them come from the Maghreb region of North Africa. Taguelmint estimates the population of La Bricarde at 60 percent foreign. Of the remainder, 25 percent are beurs and 10 percent are French blacks. Only about twenty white families are left in the projects, and all of them, Taguelmint says, feel trapped and bitter. Asked how many belong to the hard-right National Front, he replied, "All of them." All of them? He thought for a minute and revised his opinion: "No fewer than fifteen."

Claude Bertrand, the chief of staff to Marseille's mayor, admits that a succession of Socialist mayors bought a degree of social peace with ethnic sorting. "Not so much as it looked," he told me, but he grants that it happened. He assumes that such segregation will be undone in the natural course of things, primarily by the influence of television. (Other observers assert that by relying on this most American and global of media to assimilate newcomers, France risks solving its ethnic problems by dissolving its own culture -- for natives and newcomers alike.) Bertrand is unworried about the National Front, viewing its supporters as basically the same bloc -- the petits blancs, the white lumpenproletariat -- that voted Communist throughout the Cold War. In this he's right. He thinks the best way to defuse the group is by increasing employment.

As the Marseille sociologist Michel Peraldi points out, though, trying to thwart an anti-immigrant movement by increasing employment is self-contradictory. Immigration to Marseille is actually relatively low right now. Immigrants flock to places that are growing, and today's growth is elsewhere, and in high tech -- "le capitalisme cognitif," as Peraldi puts it. Growth like that exists in the region -- in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, which in two decades has been transformed from a sleepy tourist village into a bobo mini-metropolis of 135,000 people. But Marseille is a city that the rich flee, so most of its growth is in the outlying areas. This is anomalous. The majority of French cities are rich, orderly, and right-wing; it's the suburbs that are impoverished, overcrowded, and violent. Marseille is the only big city in France that follows the U.S. model: its center is poorer than its periphery. So Marseille functions like New York (a comparison that Bertrand makes proudly) -- but New York in the 1970s. Older-generation politicians see poverty, crime, maladjustment, and alienation, and trying to come up with a solution they think "government." The top employer in Marseille is the national government, with 14,000 workers. The No. 2 employer is the municipality, with 12,000.

Nassera Benmarnia and her husband, Nouredine Hagoug, both French-born of Algerian descent, both in their late thirties, are looking for a solution to the Muslim community's problems that doesn't rely solely on throwing money and low-rent housing at people like them. Their Union of Muslim Families, near Marseille's cathedral, a mile up the Canebière from the docks, focuses on charity, cultural values, and informal cooperation, rather than on political activism. I visited them recently in a crumbling ground-floor office where screw-in sheet-metal shelves were covered with discarded sweaters and French textbooks bound for Algeria. A sign read DO SOMETHING FOR THE NEEDY -- INCH'ALLAH!

Benmarnia and Hagoug are devout; they are bringing their children up to speak and write Arabic as well as French. Benmarnia was educated in a Catholic school, but she told me that she would send her two sons to a French Islamic school if she could. She's not alone. A 1995 Harris poll showed that 76 percent of Muslims in France would prefer to send their children to religious schools under state supervision, an option currently available to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, but not to Muslims.

Like virtually all believing Muslims in France, Benmarnia and Hagoug are preoccupied with the position of Islam under the country's 1905 law regarding the separation of Church and State. It was passed by a secularist government in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, when a backlash set in against the Catholic Church's role in fanning the anti-Semitism that was made evident by the wrongful conviction, for treason, of the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus. The law banned state funding of religious institutions. For a long time it was so strictly interpreted that it seemed virtually to declare nonbelief as the state religion; for much of the century professing Catholics were informally barred from serving in the French cabinet. The law has generally been praised by the left and reviled by the right -- so it is ironic that an immigrant group practicing a minority religion is now intent on overturning, or at least modifying, a law intended to prevent France from turning into a Catholic theocracy.

At the time the law was passed, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish institutions already had a wealth of buildings and facilities and assets, and they retain them to this day. What's more, a number of those holy buildings were linked to "cultural associations," which the state continues to fund generously. Muslims have no such assets, and their religious traditions make it harder for them to use the political arena to obtain any. Islam doesn't have a hierarchical clergy the way the Catholic Church does. Nor can the Muslims of France, drawn from various countries and religious traditions, form community institutions as easily as, say, the mostly indigenous Jewish population can. The sociologist Franck Frégosi, of CNRS Strasbourg, a national center for scientific research, draws out the comparison rather starkly: France's 45 million Catholics have 40,000 cathedrals, churches, and chapels. Its 900,000 Protestants have 957 houses of worship. Its 500,000 Jews have eighty-two synagogues and large oratories. Its four million Muslims have eight formal mosques (some count 1,600 mosques, but many of these are better described as informal prayer rooms in cellars or spare workrooms). There are Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish -- but no Muslim -- chaplains in the French army.

The unequal position of Islam makes it harder for Muslims to integrate in two ways, Hagoug thinks. First, it radicalizes the religion in practice, because freelance "mosques" tend to be set up by poorly trained, fiery, self-appointed imams. Given the interplay between religion and politics in Islam, this in turn radicalizes Muslims' politics. Second, the formal mosques that do exist are funded by foreign Islamic governments often hostile to France's interests. Paris's grand mosque is mainly funded by the government of Algeria, others by Saudi Arabia. This can lead the français de souche to suspect -- sometimes with justification -- that their Muslim fellow citizens constitute a kind of fifth column. And no justification is necessarily needed for their suspicions. "After the Algerian war," Hagoug says, speaking of a humiliating debacle that remains fresh in many minds, "we're a symbol of a French failure."

Benmarnia is intent on making the Muslim presence in France normal, regular, nonsymbolic. Ultimately, the couple's mission is not so much about separatist claims as about family values. This leads one to wonder if they recognize any commonality with William Bennett and other American conservatives. "We're not the Moral Majority," Hagoug says with a laugh. But when asked if the primary problem is a secularized France with little concern for protecting the interests of families, he nods. "That's it!"

To an American, what's most interesting about Hagoug is his extreme patience in talking about subjects that elicit strident rage in the United States. He loves Marseille, but thinks that a certain amount of racism may be part of its warp and woof. "The identity of the Marseillais," he says, "is often formed by striking out at the last to arrive." He admits that taxi drivers in Marseille are notably xenophobic, but adds that it is possible to negotiate with them; in the mid-1980s their union even petitioned for a loosening of visa requirements for Algerians, worrying that the government's crackdown on immigration was curtailing tourist revenues. In his opposition to a xenophobic politics that would permanently eliminate any room for such negotiations, though, Hagoug is uncompromising. "A National Front victory," he says, "locally or nationally, would be a mortal wound to Marseille."

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Breathtaking Tour Above the Moab Desert

Filmmaker Ian Cresswell rigs an HD camera atop a remote-controlled "octocopter" for some spectacular aerial views.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In