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.

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."

It may be in the fascistic National Front that the most surprising shift in attitudes toward Arabs has taken place. During the European elections of 1998 Samuel Maréchal, the party's director of communications (and son-in-law of its founder and leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen), addressed what he called the "multi-denominational" aspect of France. The National Front, he said, would continue to battle against "clandestine" immigration and to back the deportation of new arrivals who were criminals, but it now favored reaching out to Islam. It would continue to oppose the foreign financing of mosques, but would be in favor of changing the law of 1905 in order to ensure French government funding for them. In fact, the National Front is "absolutely" in favor of Muslims' building mosques, so long as they're not "cathedral mosques," with minarets and other symbols on display in ways that might provoke other religions. When the National Front adjutant Bruno Mégret broke with Le Pen over this and other issues, the movement split in two.

At least that's the way a young Front spokesman named Thomas Lagane explained it to me, from his desk in Le Paquebot, the party's boat-shaped headquarters, which looms over the Seine in Saint-Cloud, just west of Paris. Lagane is a sort of immigrant himself, having been born in the Central African Republic, formerly a French colony, in 1968. With me he went even further than Maréchal has gone publicly, arguing that France's minorities should be flocking to the National Front. "It's wrong to say that France has a single unique culture," he said. "In fact, the National Front is the movement in France that best defends multiculturalism. Let me explain. In your country especially there is a sort of destructive cultural imperialism, a global standardization of behavior, consumption, habits of thought, economic philosophy, that is causing European peoples to lose their identity. In defending our national identity we are protecting difference against standardization. The Islamic people loses its identity through the same process. We hope Muslims keep their roots, and don't try to integrate at the expense of them."

Lagane admitted that globalization has its merits. He should: he wears a stylish tattersall shirt, smokes Marlboro Lights, and does his writing on a brand-new Macintosh G3 laptop. (In fact, he left the Front just weeks after our talk, to start his own dot-com company.)"We're not against globalization," he said. "We're against a globalism that destroys the family and the nation." Certainly the National Front has changed since the early 1980s, when it tried to mix Reagan-Thatcher capitalism with a vociferous opposition to the then-prevalent high levels of immigration. The turning point seems to have been the Gulf War, in 1991, even today a staple of Le Pen's oratory, after which the movement adopted a virulently anti-capitalist stance and began to rail against American "imperialism," both economic and cultural. The new National Front seems to view Arabs as natural allies in a struggle against globalism, which it has traditionally viewed as American and Jewish. The Front is not against Israel, Lagane said (rather implausibly), only against its role, in cooperation with America, as policeman in the Middle East; what's more, he was heartened that "the Jewish community is evolving: it's now less viscerally led by left-wing Jews." He sounded almost like an old-style anti-American in his assurances that "the National Front has no quarrel with the American people."

It's doubtful that we need fear a National Front foreign policy from France anytime soon. But there are disquieting signs all the same. Last February Lionel Jospin visited Jerusalem, where he described Hezbollah guerrilla actions as "terrorist attacks." The ensuing criticism from Arab countries was not as extraordinary as his abandonment by the French left, which had theretofore been urging Jospin to try harder to wrest control of France's foreign policy from President Chirac. The growing weight of the Arab vote in France may be leaving French politicians precious little foreign-policy leeway. If so, that would help to explain why Chirac was the only Western head of state to attend the funeral of the Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, in June.

It's hard to say how much of France's new cosmopolitanism is due to immigration and how much simply to globalization. If there's a Zidane effect, there's also a Michael Jordan effect. "Today," says the political reporter Blandine Grosjean, of the daily national newspaper Libération, "assimilation means getting not a beret but a casquette américaine" -- as the French have come to call those cheap and omnipresent baseball caps. France has always been full of foreigners, but in the past they were foreigners intent on becoming French and joining the world's leading culture. Interest in foreign lands was a matter for elite scholars and exoticists. Now Paris is becoming more like New York -- the kind of place where one is always able to get good food from many cultures. It was apparent in France by the 1980s that North African couscous had outstripped both rice and potatoes as the country's favorite accompaniment to meat, to become, arguably, the national food of France. Whole streets all over Paris are lined with couscous shops.

Even France's Minister of Education, Jack Lang, who in the early 1980s, as François Mitterrand's first Minister of Culture, railed against the importation of American culture and English words, has mellowed on the issue. Sitting in his office on Place des Vosges, in the Marais district of Paris, Lang told me that he regrets having called France an exception culturelle back then. "Globalization doesn't have to mean uniformization," he said. Besides, he added, he delights in a lot of American culture. "I love rap, just as I love hip-hop and break dancing. C'est fantastique. And in crossing the Atlantic it's transformed." Lang understands the risk: that cultural tolerance will mean not a more inclusive French culture but a "contraband American culture." But for him, the imperatives of anti-racism seem to have overwhelmed those of nationalism. "What's at issue here," he said, "is not protecting a so-called 'purity' of French culture. It's ridiculous. Such a purity doesn't exist. That would be chauvinism, racism. I can't bear that."

France operates under constitutional traditions that cause it to move much more cautiously than the United States in fixing racial disparities. It's the Interior Minister who is charged with ensuring harmony among citizens, and every Interior Minister of the 1990s has had an Islam policy. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the Interior Minister from 1997 until his resignation in late August, went further than most. An ideological man, systematic in a way that is pleasing to the French, Chevènement broke with Mitterrand when the latter turned right on economics in the early 1980s. His initiative on Islam, which was signed with the support of four Islamic federations, was firmly grounded in the very French idea of citoyenneté. Literally, that's just "citizenship," but it's a more concrete idea in France than in the United States. It carries associations with voting rights, civic participation, cultural assimilation, and absolute equality under the law.

Chevènement tailored his initiative so that it answered at least some of the questions everyone was asking. Along with Claude Allègre, the former Minister of Education, he called for the creation of an Institute of Islamic Studies. This institute would help to create a political lobbying organization among France's disparate and contentious Muslim subpopulations, along the lines of the country's long-standing Protestant Federation. Chevènement urged extending voting rights for noncitizens who have been resident in France for ten years, calling it merely a necessary consequence of the Maastricht agreement that brought France into the European Union. Parts of the initiative will prove to be either gimmicks or brilliant ways of finding loopholes in the 1905 law that France now finds cumbersome. Typical is a tax on halal meat to fund mosques. And in a way that would have quelled the National Front's fears of looming minarets, Chevènement asked Muslims to "integrate the construction of their mosques into the landscape of our cities."

The person responsible for coordinating Chevènement's policies among ministries for much of his tenure was Patrick Quinqueton, a longtime politician in the Movement of Citizens party. Quinqueton, now a high-ranking official in France's National Police, is a straight shooter with a scholarly bearing and an Abe Lincoln beard. He has long hoped that Chevènement's idea of "citizenship" will cure a lot of ills. "It used to be that access to French nationality was simple," Quinqueton told me last year at the Interior Ministry. He was referring to the short residency requirements -- relative to those in other European countries -- for settlers seeking French citizenship. "But access to society didn't follow as simply. These [second-generation] young people are today the object of discrimination, in work and in housing -- not always as the result of racism." That sounds like a very fine distinction, but he explained: "You can't call this discrimination against immigrants, because in fact they're not immigrants at all. What we look for is access to citoyenneté."

Quinqueton rejected affirmative action out of hand. "Thinking about these issues poses that question immediately," he told me. "But we've made the choice not to install such a system. Absolutely not. France's political and social system -- very much attached to the principle of equality -- wouldn't accept it. Whatever gives the impression that positions are getting handed out on some basis other than merit winds up shocking people. It provokes other sorts of problems." Yet Quinqueton made the Clintonlike stipulation that the police, for instance, should "look like their communities."

The French state will be under increasing pressure to institute something like affirmative action, even if it comes under a different name. Last May, on the eve of a "black peoples' march" demanding, among other things, more representation in the media, the Minister of Communications, Catherine Tasca, ordered two national television stations, France 2 and France 3, to "more fully take into consideration the diversity of the French population." The French constitutional provision against advancing racial groups seems to be weakening. Although hard quotas are out, soft quotas have arrived, bringing with them a paradox: there is no government program more American than affirmative action, and Americanization is something that everyone in the society -- from Socialists to conservatives, from Communists to the National Front -- professes to dread.

The big problem is finding a way for the state to respect different religions and cultures without turning itself into an engine of de-assimilation. Fortunately or unfortunately, this problem is new to Europe, and the model for all such racial reconciliations tends to be the one that came out of the American civil-rights movement. Nouredine Hagoug says, "The cardinal mistake was to think of immigration uniquely as an importing of labor. That is, not to consider that these were also human beings, forming families and bringing children into the world. And these things manifestly weren't thought out. A policy built around low-qualification, low-pay labor may have been a good one in the 1970s. But now France is discovering that what it thought of as merchandise turns out to be human beings."