French Muslims continue to struggle with unemployment, social immobility and systemic racism, in spite of the French government’s calls for integration, which runs into deep-founded racism with every turn.
A young Muslim man of North African descent leans against a graffiti-filled wall in Felix Pyat, Marseille’s poorest and third quarter. With a loosely-held cigarette in hand, his shaved head and worn leather jacket are entirely at odds with his education: a biotechnology engineer, graduating fifth in his class.
“I got fifth because I was too smart for my own good,” jests Mohammed with a pained smile. “Not smart enough to remember that I’m Arab, and there’s no point to school.”
Mohammed Laarbi, whose last name has been changed due to his request for anonymity, has been on the hunt for a job for three years to no avail. The reason?
“Discrimination,” he claims. “When they hear your last name, you can see the interviewer’s face change. Sometimes they’re extra-polite, in an unnatural way. But you can see in their eyes they’re not interested in an Arab,” he adds.
Laarbi’s situation is hardly unique. Muslim immigrants in France, some third- and fourth-generation, have yet to integrate into a country that doesn’t really want them.
One of the most famous Algerian folk songs ‘Ya Rayah’ (Oh departing one), encapsulates the feeling of entire generations of disenchanted Algerians who arrived for France for employment, only to find despair in diaspora.
Oh departing one, wherever you go, you’ll only tire and return... How many developed countries and barren lands will you see? How much time have you wasted, and how much will you still lose? Oh absent one, in the country of others How tired can you be and still run? Why is your heart so sad? And why is the miserable one like this? Hardship will end, but days don't last, and neither will my youth, just like yours
Kamel Messoudi, another classic Algerian folk singer laments in one song: "Oh strangeness in the land of others / Whoever sees me, says he's is a 'foreigner' / After once being silver, today I revert to copper."
But since the release of these songs in the 1970's, circumstances remain highly similar.
“Modern France and Colonial France haven’t really changed”, says Dr Hamed Benseddik, a professor of Decolonial Studies who spoke to TRT World.
Benseddik believes that modern France “continues to struggle with the failed integration and assimilation of Muslims, largely due to its own internal contradictions”.
“How does a country that allegedly stands for liberty, equality and fraternity reconcile itself with internal racist undercurrents that deny the liberty of religion, generate inequality, and regard Arabs and Muslims as second-class citizens?” asks Benseddik.
“It can’t, because it would have to first acknowledge its white saviour’s complex, the genocide of millions, its nuclear testing in colonies, systemic racism, rape, torture, muder and its industrialisation at the expense of entire nations and peoples in the name of Mother France and all that she stands for. That’s not going to happen anytime soon.”
France has always had a ‘Muslim’ problem
Once known as Francia, the Frankish Empire was Europe’s foremost imperial power and the first and largest barbarian kingdom to emerge from the Dark Ages following Rome’s fall. The same empire would one day give birth to France and Germany.
Charles Martel, one of France’s oldest heroes had his moment of glory unifying Francia in a fight against Andalusian Muslims, when he defeated them in the crushing battle of Tours which many Europeans see as the continent’s first repulsion of Islam.
With tens of thousands dead, Andalusian history mournfully describes the battle as ‘the Court of Martyrs’. Historian John Henry Haaren describes it as, “One of the decisive battles of the world. It decided that Christians and not Muslims should be the ruling power in Europe.” His sentiment is widely shared.
But this was only the beginning of France’s story. Martel was thrust into the spotlight of heroism for his victory, gaining notoriety and immense power for having saved Christendom from the Moors. His grandson, Charlemagne was idolised not just in France but throughout Europe as the first pan-European figure, becoming the first self-proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor of Western Europe after waging countless wars against the Arab Saracens and Moors.
The actions of Martel and his grandson gave rise to France, and a perception of Islam as a threat since the nation’s conception. This propagated worldview would guide France’s colonial wars, and the consequent colonisation of the Middle East itself.
Forgotten history, whitewashed crimes
In France today, the name of the game is integration. French Muslims are often the subject of heated debates and simplifications overlooking religious and cultural diversity. The common cry remains that Muslims in France have not adopted French ways, culture and norms. Instead, the very meaning of what it means to be French is portrayed at risk by pundits, right-wing politicians and patriots alike.
But few question the reason for Muslims’ lack of integration, or the ‘mere history’ of racism, colonialism and social factors, which are often dismissed by the mainstream.
Abdelmalak Sayad, renowned Algerian-French sociologist and author of the The Suffering of Immigrants describes multiple reasons Muslims are marginalised in France, particularly North Africans.
“At the forefront is France’s laissez-faire attitude and unapologetic stance towards its bloody role as a colonial power and brutal subjugator of peoples,” says Sayad. “This included dehumanisation, torture, rape, exploitation and outright genocide, as in the case of over 5,000,000 Algerians killed throughout 132 years of French colonial rule.”
To the present day, France has yet to formally acknowledge its use of widescale torture, population cleansing, nuclear testing or the exploitation of resources in Algeria.
Often lost on many modern pundits and analysts, France’s exploitative colonial history left a bitter legacy for many Muslims.
In Algeria for instance, settlers took control of cities, vast tracts of the best arable agricultural land, and often rented out plots to Algerians at prohibitive rates. By the Third Republic, there were no limitations left on settler activity in Algeria. In one of the largest land-rushes recorded in history, Algeria’s structures, wealth and society were effectively eradicated. Algerians were not provided with education, given the likelihood it would lead to resistance or demands for higher wages.
For many North African Muslims, the ultimate hypocrisy was that France did not adhere to the very principles of the ‘Rights of Man’ it created as far back as 1789.
But Algerian Muslims were nominally French citizens. If anything, that didn’t grant them more freedoms. It presented more burdens.
Muslims paid heavier taxes, had little to no rights, and nearly no legal protection according to the infamous ‘Code of Indigenes’. To acquire French citizenship, one had to give up their ‘Muslim status’ through an intentionally difficult process. Most Algerians were officially legally identified as ‘Muslims’. To this day, immigrant Algerians in France continue to identify as Muslims, rather than give up their faith and adopt a French identity.
“To put it simply,” says Benseddik. “France’s republican ideals were permanently tarnished in the eyes of people who knew its truth.”
Muslims quickly became an undercaste in Algeria itself, in spite of being the largest majority. Algerian Jews were granted speedy citizenship under the Cremieux decree, and given every right a citizen of the French republic enjoyed.
Stranded without hope
It wasn’t long before Algerians would seek out France for temporary work, remittances being the only means by which they could save entire villages from ruin and abject poverty.
France in turn, was in need of unskilled industrial labourers, and was already accustomed to using North African indentured conscripts on its front lines throughout World War I and II. By the 1970s, Algerian migration for work was no longer a phenomena, but a reality.
With the end of industrialisation, unemployment soared in France. Labour was no longer an upwards path to integration in French society, leaving many stranded.
This wasn’t to last. France was already in the process of shifting into a post-industrial economy, leaving many Muslim immigrants out of a job, lacking education or other skills and leaving them economically marginalised and stranded on the wrong side of the the social ladder. This wasn’t all too long ago.
The French Institute for Demographic Studies reports that unemployment only worsened in minorities as discrimination increased. Among the first wave of immigrants, 15 percent of male Algerians, 11 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians, and 10 percent of Turks were unemployed.
By the second generation, unemployment had gone from bad to worse.
Among Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians unemployment had risen to 17 percent. For Turks, it nearly doubled to 19 percent. Immigrant unemployment was much higher than the native French average.
Housing for the masses
Soon after World War II, France implemented mass low-cost public housing development projects. To indigenous French citizens, they were described as ‘shoddily-built, uniform and aesthetically unappealing’.
But to Muslim immigrants, they were a blessing compared to housing lacking heat, water, private and bathrooms. They would soon discover the new cites were isolated from public transportation, social areas, and presented difficulties getting to work.
With the lack of a better alternative, the enclaves were predominantly lived in by immigrants, as the socially-mobile French moved into better neighbourhoods. In time, they would become ghettos. Rising immigrant rates meant most working-age immigrants relied on some form of welfare. Schools filled with immigrants became less and less a means to social mobility, as the dream of ‘making-it’ died out.
Second and third-generation immigrants became more susceptible to gangs, drugs, and antisocial behaviour; reducing prospects for immigrants as a whole to dig themselves out of poverty and squalor.
In a vicious cycle, French social welfare ensured the ghetto’s marginalised and isolated survived. Disenfranchisement would rise further, as ghetto culture and mannerisms became the perfect targets for police crackdowns.
“Prison populations jumped significantly with this ghettoisation. More than half of the French prison population is Muslim,” says Marouane Mohammed, former director of the Muslim Association for Islam in France, speaking to TRT World.
“They don’t feel alive. They live in purgatory. No parks. No cafes. Their jobs don’t pay enough for them to feel like they are real jobs. Even if you are academically successful, you’re not likely to go far. Discrimination based on your name and area code is the norm,” says Mohammed.
But this is no longer limited to France’s Muslims. The gilet jaune (yellow vest) movement reflects growing discontent with pervasive economic insecurity.
As with the disruptive end of the industrial era, the rise of the knowledge economy put industrial and post-industrial jobs in dire conditions. With a new economy reliant on global financial instruments, technology and specialized skills; the beneficiaries are few, at the expense of the many.
With rising costs of living, housing and a shrinking middle class, Muslim immigrants and the indigneous French alike face the same challenges. For second and third-generation Muslim immigrants in the banlieues, this serves as yet another confirmation that the path upwards and out is blocked.
Denied a necessary middle class, Muslim immigrants are socially immobilised, cash-strapped, and discriminated against. French calls for creating a 'French Islam', is seen with widespread suspicion given France’s legacy of using religion as a means of social control in colonial territories.
Colonial France promoted pacifist religion to minimise resistance, while nearly eradicating the practice and memory of Islam by cracking down on schools and religious instruction. If it weren't for the efforts of reformist scholars such as Abdelhamid bin Badis over more than a century who collectively struggled to keep religion and literacy alive; it's likely Algerians would speak only French today and know nothing of Islam.
Meanwhile, genuine efforts at engaging Muslims have long since collapsed. Under French President Sarkozy’s term, authorities created the French Council of the Muslim Faith in 2003, which would represent major immigrant groups (Algerian, Moroccan and Turkish) as well as Islamic organizations. With low credibility to begin with, the council has developed the reputation of being an arena of rivalries and in-fighting between ideological factions.
While some Muslim immigrants are making their way into the middle class, an uphill battle remains where they must not only prove themselves, but feature their ‘Frenchness’. For North Africans who witness firsthand how ‘Frenchness’ treats them daily, or recall the tales of deprivation and bloodlust their forefathers paid for; the price is a bitter one for survival.
For the majority still in the ghettos, there is no path ahead for the taking: just bleak, second-class existence.