When French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview last month that he plans to “set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organized in France,” he wasn’t making an unprecedented announcement. Rather, he was pledging to succeed where his predecessors have failed.
Successive governments since the 1980s have tried to create a brand of Islam particular to France, with the dual objective of integrating the country’s Muslim minority and fighting Islamist extremism. The goal has been to create an Islam that both conforms to national values, notably secularism, and is immune to the radical interpretations that have gained a footing in certain parts of the Muslim world. Ironically, past attempts to codify a sort of French Islam—transforming Islam in France to an Islam of France—have been deeply entangled with French Muslims’ countries of origin, especially Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey. In 2015, for example, then-President François Hollande signed a deal with the Moroccan monarchy to send French imams to a training institute in Rabat.
The result is a crisis of representation and legitimacy. Existing organizations, affiliated with the state or otherwise, don’t represent the diverse Muslim communities in France. This undermines the integration of Muslims into the broader society and, according to Macron’s government, creates space for dangerous ideologies. At the same time, many Muslims consider a top-down approach to manage Islam domesticating or patronizing, particularly in light of France’s unresolved colonial legacy in the Arab-Muslim world—a way to assimilate Islam to the point of invisibility.