The Alienation, Victimization, and Frustration of French Muslims – Part I

This two part series will look at Muslims in France to provide insight into the alienation, victimization, and frustration that is radicalizing some French Muslims to committing the recent terrorist attacks in France.

(Photo by Olivier Ortelpa via Wikimedia Commons)

Allison M. Feikes

This two part series will look at Muslims in France to provide insight into the alienation, victimization, and frustration that is radicalizing some French Muslims to committing the recent terrorist attacks in France.

Part 1: Assimilation and Discrimination of French Muslims

The most extreme consequence of alienation, victimization, and frustration is radicalism. Often, radical acts occur in places like Syria or Latin America, where oppression is widespread and easily seen. What is more surprising is the radicalization of Islam in Europe, a much more stable region of the world. Recently, Da’esh was able to recruit European Muslims in order to attack two of Europe’s capitals.[1] Furthermore, France has been attacked twice within the past year in the name of jihad. Although terrorism is never justified, a long history of atrocious French policies towards Muslims ultimately fostered an environment where terrorism could take place within the country. Radicalization was able to take place due to the alienation, victimization, and frustration of Muslims in Europe.

Although a large-scale Muslim radicalization in Europe has not been seen often, the majority of Europe’s fifteen to twenty million Muslims are struggling to become European in a place riddled with Islamophobia. Events of the last two decades such as the Charlie Hebdo incident, Algerian train bombs, and, most recently, the Da’esh terrorist attack in Paris have raised alarm in France especially. France’s immediate reaction after the Da’esh attack was to increase airstrikes on the Da’esh capital of Raqqa, which is not addressing the primary cause of the radicalization of the terrorists that carried out these attacks. In order to prevent future terrorist attacks from occurring inside the French border, France will have to also reevaluate internal domestic policy towards its own Muslims. Many French Muslims have become alienated, victimized, and frustrated, leading causes of radicalism and ultimately terrorism; meaning, French policies are in part to blame for the recent tragedies in the country.

A Bloody History with Muslims

France’s history with its Muslim population has left deep scars. Out of the roughly five million Muslims in France, nearly two million are Algerian.[2] France relocated Algerians to France during the 1960s worker shortage to aid the industrial French economy. Later, these workers were allowed to bring their families to France. Many of these workers became naturalized, and their children gained citizenship through birth within French borders. Another influx of roughly eighty thousand Muslims who were loyal to the French government during the Algerian War were brought to France following the decolonization of Algeria. The legacy of colonization and a bloody decolonization process as well as repeated meddling in Algerian politics are strongly linked to alienation, victimization, and frustration Muslims in France feel today.

When considering the treatment of Muslims in Algeria, a pattern of mistrust emerges. Modern French colonial authorities as early as the 1870s institutionalized a tier system in Algeria where Catholics and Jews could become French citizens but Muslims could not.[3] Muslims were still not considered citizens of France despite claims that Algeria was French up until decolonization. This mistreatment of the Muslim population lasted well into the 1950s, creating animosity towards the French for decades.

The greatest resentment for the French came with the Algerian War of Independence that was fought from 1954 to 1962. Half a million French soldiers in addition to the 150,000-200,000 Muslim Algerians, many fighting because they were opposed to the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) rather than loyal to France, fought to push back against the FLN. The Algerian government has asserted that the official death toll reached one million.[4] At least five percent of the Algerian population was wiped out while another ten percent fled the country.[5] The decolonization of Algeria was extremely bloody compared to other European decolonization efforts. The war was a “heart and mind” crusade, which made it longer and bloodier than other efforts. The French and the counterinsurgency destroyed resources in Algeria such as forests, deserts, and agricultural land mostly through airborne attacks but also with some offensive counterinsurgency combat operations. The effects of the war spawned blame and resentment towards the French within Algeria, and with some Algerians in France, for years to come.

France continued to exert influence of the political system in Algeria after decolonization. For example, French colonists remaining in Algeria continued to spread French culture among Algerian elites. France aided Algeria’s infrastructure through industrial and educational programs.[6] This led France to become deeply entrenched in the newly independent Algeria. In 1992, France supported the Algerian Army who cancelled the second round of democratic elections when it became apparent that religious fundamentalists were expected to win.[7] France’s continued involvement in Algeria despite decolonization led to returning animosity. 

Assimilation of French Muslims

The West has had two approaches towards its respective Muslim populations. English speaking countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have adapted a stance of multiculturalism, meaning that one can become a member of the state while identifying with a culture that is different from the majority. France’s approach is assimilation, where citizenship also means individual culture is erased or overridden by the majority’s culture.[8] Assimilation is not an appropriate approach to integrate Muslims as it hinders to the rights of minorities.

France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe, with nearly five million living within its borders; this makes its policy towards Muslims the most important on the continent. However, France’s assimilation policies have led to its Muslims feeling like second-class citizens. Those who have been responsible for recent terrorist attacks in France could be characterized as “perfectly Westernized.”[9] They were integrated, but were not assimilated; for example the three gunmen that carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack were born, raised, and radicalized in France.[10] As French Muslims are able to fluently speak French, enjoy cuisine, and take part in holidays, it would appear that they are integrated; however, because France is not a multiculturalist society, it is not enough to be integrated. Immigrants must not only accept all aspects of French culture, but they must also erase their own through a belief known as laïcité.

Laïcité is the idea that religion must be kept outside of the public sphere and is rooted deep in French history. Laïcité, or secularism, dates back at least to 1905 with a law that separated church and state and the term “laïcité” explicitly appeared in the 1946 Constitution, but many contend the idea dates back further to the French Revolution. The Catholic Church formerly exerted its power over the French state, entrenching an anti-religious sentiment amongst the French people. This anti-religious sentiment has caused French law today to depict a separation of church from state rather than the separation of church and state. In the French approach, religion has no place in politics or the public sphere. This is unlike other secular countries, like the United States where the guarantee to practice religion is often part of law or in Germany where religious heads are government employees. Instead, the French Revolution pillar of egalité is interpreted as encouraging French people to erase ethnic, religious, and cultural identifiers; French law to prohibits identifying citizens based on these criteria in the national census.[11] Altogether, laïcité is deeply rooted in French politics and identity, and it aims to erase religion from the French public sphere completely. This is why assimilation rather than integration is highly emphasized in France.

Conservative Muslims, with their deeply held religious beliefs, challenge laïcité, therefore challenging a core French value, and challenge the identity of France. France often conflates conservative Muslims for all Muslims, resulting in the law against wearing the full-face veil in public and the deportation of Imams. Assimilation has been highly emphasized for this group of people in France over others, marginalizing the Muslim population. Some French Muslims including Larbi Kechat, an Algerian community leader, has pushed back against the government, as he believes that assimilation oppresses the Muslim population. He has stated, “What is being asked us is not integration but assimilation, which requires us to leave our identity behind. Individuals can be assimilated, a community cannot. A workable integration is one in which each party accepts the other as it is, with its own special culture.”[12] Kechat has also spoken out against the banning of the hijab in public schools, believing that denying Muslim students this freedom violates basic human rights, hurting their ability to freely practice their religion or adhere to their culture.[13]

Other religious groups including Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have also pushed back against laïcité. However, Islam is now the second largest religion in France. Catholicism is a battle France is used to fighting and compromise with Catholic religious leaders is often achieved; the Islamic push back against the idea of laïcité is new. Conservative Muslims in France challenge laïcité unlike other minority groups as a larger population of Muslims exist within the country. Religion, in general, challenges laïcité, and Islam is now at the front of this fight.

One of France’s largest problems is the demand for assimilation rather than integration and multiculturalism. Conservative Muslims demand the ability to practice their religion and culture in the public sphere. The vast Muslim population in France has been conflated as homogenous, meaning the threat to French identity has been perceived as momentous creating further oppression of the French Muslim population. 

Discrimination Against Muslims in France

Xenophobic or anti-Muslim feelings in France aids in the oppression of the Muslim population. A 1996 public opinion survey found that 51 percent of French people thought “there were too many Arabs” in France.[14] Although the favorability of Muslims in France has grown since, Pew Research Center found in 2015 that only 18 percent of the right wing in France has a favorable view of Muslims.[15] Muslims are quite similar to the general population of France as only 10 to 15 percent of France’s Muslims regularly practice Islam. However, two thirds of France associates Islam with religious fanaticism.[16] The majority of the French population wrongly confuses “Muslim” with “jihad.”[17] In reality, leaders in the Muslim community, like Ahmed Jaballah, the director of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UIOF), work to demystify Islam and show it is compatibility with French society; he is a proponent of a new type of Islam that can be combined with Western ideals. Jaballah and the UIOF work to provide religious training with a Western orientation.[18] Most Muslims in France respect secularism in France, but as France exerts pressure on French Muslims to conform to French society due to a lack of understanding, tension between French Muslims and non-Muslims is created. More troubling is the fact that the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, a French government think tank, found that this discrimination and misunderstanding is deeply rooted, unlike elsewhere in Europe, in the elites.[19]

Discrimination towards Muslims has been solidified through a political party, the National Front. The National Front is a right wing party of France that blames France’s economic detriments on the Muslim population.[20] Marine Le Pen has personified this party; she has gained significant power and traction through her anti-Muslim rhetoric, especially following the Da’esh attack in Paris. Le Pen is now well positioned to seek the French presidency in 2017.[21] The National Front has pushed against French Muslims through such actions as picketing property associated with the UIOF.[22] The progress of the National Front, which thrives on the false assumptions of French Muslims, further alienates the Islamic population of France. Further alienation of French Muslims encourages radicalization rather than discourage it. As long as Le Pen and the National Front continue to encourage xenophobic policies, they stand to worsen the situation in France rather than better it.

In addition to the National Front, discrimination against Muslims occurs in the French media. When the French-American Foundation first sought to disseminate research on discrimination against Muslims in France, the French media outlets remained silent.[23] In articles that discuss the integration of French Muslims in France, 28 percent of those articles depicted Muslims as problematic citizens who have habits that prevent them from fully integrating into France and 32 percent of the articles viewed Muslims as bad citizens who have not integrated into France.[24] This means that well over half of French media poorly depicts Muslims, encouraging viewers to hold similar convictions. Muslims in the media are “associated with violence, extreme religiosity, and disrespect for France’s secularism” which reflects the French media’s pattern of questioning the “Frenchness” of Muslims. The French media often echoes the rhetoric of the dominant political leaders of France.[25] The media encourages the general French population to be suspicious of this population; it also sends a message to the Muslim population that France does not welcome them.

This mistrust of Muslims has led to the socioeconomic stagnation of French Muslims. More than 30 percent of French Muslims are unemployed compared to only 10 percent of the general population, and these Muslims are often overqualified or in a temporary position for the jobs they do work.[26] Correspondence testing found in the French labor market that out of 100 positive responses for a CV with a French name, a Maghrebi sounding name would only receive 35 positive responses with an otherwise identical CV.[27] The mistrust of the Muslim population has greatly hindered the Muslim population’s ability to find employment.

This staggering unemployment rate extends beyond social discrimination, but also poor education in French banlieues, neighborhoods of low-income housing projects, where many French Muslims reside. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which “evaluates the performance of 15-year-old students in academics in various countries, the difference between the best- and worst-performing students is higher in France than in many other industrialized countries.”[28] Furthermore, in France, “37 percent of those whose parents were born in Africa have failed to obtain at least a secondary school degree, compared with 17 percent of those whose parents are both French born.”[29] Poor education for this section of the population is a form of institutional discrimination. Without proper access to education, poor Muslims face an additional barrier to upward mobility.

The problems in integrating French Muslims are cyclical. Cultural and religious norms of Muslims seem threatening to traditional French nationalism; such distinction feeds anti-Muslim discrimination in France, which itself encourages greater Muslim withdraw from French society, feeding back into French discrimination.[30] Discrimination, in other words, works similarly to a snowball in France. Once discrimination occurs, Muslim reactions encourage further discrimination. This makes discrimination complicated in mitigation. However, there are many roots to discrimination that can be identified. The French population is greatly misinformed on its Muslims. The National Front uses Muslim fear mongering in order to galvanize French voters. The media as well as French institutions also encourages discrimination against Muslims. By identifying root causes, these problems are not hopeless.

Allison Feikes is a Masters student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, concentrating in European and Eurasian Studies and International Economics. She has completed internships at the Turkish Heritage Organization, The SETA Foundation, and the U.S. Mission to the EU. Prior to coming to SAIS, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Canakkale, Turkey. Feikes received her BA in Political Science and International Affairs from the Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

[1] Da’esh is a name to refer to the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). Many have begun using the name Da’esh to challenge the legitimacy of the group. It is made from the former Arabic name of the group, and supporters firmly oppose its usage.

[2] Stephanie Giry, “France and Its Muslims,” Foreign Affairs 85, no. 5(September/October 2006).

[3] Jeffrey James Byrne, review of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, by Martin Evans, Journal of Modern History 85, no 3 (September 2013): 693.

[4] Matthew Connelly, “Déjà vu All Over Again: Algeria, France, and Us,” The National Interest 42 (Winter 1995/96): 27-37.

[5] Phillip Chiviges Naylor, “Algeria and France: The Post-Colonial Relationship, 1962-1975,” Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society 5 (1980): 58-69.

[6] Robert S. Lieken, Europe’s Angry Muslims: The Revolt of the Second Generation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3-16.

[7] Oliver Roy, Secularism Confronts Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), x-xi.

[8] Ibid., xi.

[9] Angelique Chrisafis, “Charlie Hebdo attackers: born, raised and radicalized in Paris,” The Guardian, January 12, 2015,

[10] Stephanie Giry, “France and Its Muslims,” Foreign Affairs 85, no. 5 (September/October 2006)

[11] Miltron Viorst, “The Muslims of France,” Foreign Affairs 75, no. 5 (September/October 1996): 78-96.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ahmet T. Kuru, “Secularism, State Policies, and Muslims in Europe: Analyzing French Exceptionalism,” Comparative Politics 41, no. 1 (2008): 1–19.

[14] Richard Wike, “Ratings of Muslims rise in France after Charlie Hebdo, just as in U.S. after 9/11,” Pew Research Center, June 3, 2015,

[15] Viorst, “The Muslims of France.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Giry, “France and Its Muslims.”

[19] Adam Nossiter, “Marine Le Pen’s Anti-Islam Message Gains Influence in France,” The New York Times, November 17, 2015,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Viorst, “The Muslims of France.”

[22] Claire Adida, David Laitin, and Marie-Anne Valfort “Terror in France: Implications for Muslim integration,” The Washington Post, January 14, 2015,

[23] Jennifer Fredette, Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and The Politics of Citizenship (Philadelphia: Templeton University Press, 2014), 39.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Stephanie Giry, “France and Its Muslims.”

[26] Claire L. Adida, David Laitin, and Marie-Ann Valfort, “Identifying Barriers to Muslim Integration in France,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107, no. 52 (November 28, 2010): 22385.

[27] Adida, Laitin, and Valfort, “Terror in France: Implications for Muslim Integration.”

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

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