France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish communities and its second largest population of Roman Catholics. There are an estimated five million to six million Muslims (8 to 10 percent of the population), although estimates of how many of these are practicing vary widely. With one of the highest proportions of minorities and the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, France has seen in recent times unrest in underserved suburbs, a political movement against "burqas" (a term generalized to indicate any Muslim female robe that covers the body from head to toe), a recent wariness over minarets, and recurring tension over political and economic access and opportunity. The French public and government have historically rejected multi-culturalism in the name of secularism, stating that "there are no differences between us because we are all French."
Within France's overall Muslim population of five to six million, the RG (France's police intelligence service) estimates that roughly 9,000 could be considered extremist, or, just over one-tenth of one percent. The RG has also estimated that of the roughly 1,600 mosques and prayer halls in France, fewer than 40 could be considered extremist. The vast majority of French Muslims are believed to be non- practicing, with Government officials estimating that only 10 percent of those characterized as Muslim are practicing. The minority of French Muslims who regularly attend mosque are more likely than not to encounter foreign imams. According to the French Ministry of Interior, there are approximately 1,200 imams in France, of whom 75 percent are not French citizens and one-third does not speak French. Among those Muslims considered practicing, there is a small but distinct current of fundamentalist thought, which includes strongly conservative views on the role of women.
The current generation of French Muslim leaders has not fully integrated into French society - their heads are still in Algeria and Morocco. They can't speak French well. They have accents. While earlier immigrants came to France to find employment and largely remained silent on political issues, this generation of French-born Muslims is demanding acceptance as equal French citizens from French society and a more active role in the nation's political life. Young Muslims in France are generally more religious than their parents, but in very different ways. Many French-born Muslims do not speak Arabic well. French-born Muslims state that France's Muslims will not be fully accepted by, nor integrated into, French society until their leaders and spokespeople are Muslims who were born and raised in France.
The Muslim population primarily consists of immigrants from former French North African and sub-Saharan colonies and their descendents. Some of the "banlieues" - the suburbs ringing France's large cities -- host significant Muslim populations. The young men in suburban housing projects often face a bleak choice between a life of crime and one of radical Islam. By 2005 unemployment rates among French North African immigrants were four to five times the national average, which hovers just below 10 percent. The disturbances in France were not motivated by religion. The riots, in which hundreds of cars were torched nightly, were ethnically based and a matter stemming from France’s history and its fraught relations with its North African community. Disaffected, suburban Muslim youth are in the throes of an identity crisis, and facing a bleak choice between criminality and radical Islam.
There was widespread agreement that unemployment and lack of education, and not religious affiliation, were the primary factors underlying the angry hopelessness of urban youth. That said, responsible commentators on the situation -- from officials who monitor potential support for terrorist activities to rights activists with long experience working in troubled neighborhoods -- saw religious affiliation as a complicating factor. Most of the youths in question, while happening to be Muslim by culture, were generally not viewed as individually inspired by Islam, just as Islamic political groupings were generally not viewed as being directly behind the violence. Observers noted, however, that these groups did not hesitate to try to exploit the unrest for their own purposes, just as extremist and nativist politicians on the far-right played to racism and xenophobic fears.
These youth largely reject community institutions, including the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM) and National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF). The FMNF is the largest component group within the CFCM, and often portrays itself as the representative of Moroccan Muslims in France, though it espouses a conservative interpretation of Islam perhaps not representative of France's generally non-practicing Muslim population. The Moroccan government is believed to have a close and influential relationship with the FMNF.
Some say that Interior Minister Sarkozy did for the Muslims what Napoleon did for the Jews two centuries ago. During Sarkozy's first term as nterior Minister during which he oversaw the creation of the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM). In early November 2009, President Sarkozy launched a national debate on what it means to be French -- that is, the French "national identity." Confronting an increasingly globalized world and struggling with self-identity issues. Although considered a taboo topic espoused in the past only by extreme-right Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front Party (FN), the question of whether immigration is threatening French national identity is gaining wider acceptance as the government encourages the French public to have a vigorous national debate on the issue for the first time in history. Slated to run from November 2009 until January 31, 2010, what was billed by the government as the "Great Debate" has opened up politically fraught issues against a backdrop of socio-economic tension that may force a country that still does not officially recognize racial differences to rethink its identity in the 21st century. France's minority communities largely perceive the national identity project as an electoral ploy by Sarkozy's majority party (the UMP) to court the far-right, although minority leaders could turn the potentially problematic issue into an opportunity for real discussion by fully engaging in the debate.
On 11 April 2011, the government implemented a law approved in 2010 prohibiting the covering of one’s face in public. Although not explicitly stated in the law, it is widely recognized that it is intended to prohibit Muslim women from wearing the burqa or niqab. On March 31, before implementation of the law, Interior Minister Claude Gueant issued a circular providing instruction to police and Interior Ministry officials on the enforcement of the new law. According to the circular, police are only to enforce the law in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces such as restaurants and movie theatres. The circular specifically instructed police not to enforce the law in private locations, or around places of worship, where the law’s application would unduly interfere with the free exercise of religion. If the police encounter someone in a public space wearing a face covering garment such as a mask or burqa, they are instructed to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. Police officials are not allowed to remove it themselves. If individuals refuse to remove the garment, police may detain them and take them to the local police station to verify their identity. However, an individual may not be questioned or held for more than four hours.
The law imposes a fine of 150 euros ($200) on violators or requires attendance at a course in citizenship. Additionally, those who coerce another person on account of gender, by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority, to cover his or her face are subject to a fine of 30,000 euros ($40,000) and could receive a sentence of up to one year in prison; the fine and sentence is doubled if the victim is a minor. On December 27 a woman wearing a niqab was fined 35 euros ($45) for unsafe driving. Departmental Director of Public Safety Laurent Dufour stated the niqab was limiting the woman’s vision while driving and presented a safety hazard. In July the mayor of Douai prohibited the use of the Islamic bathing suit, consisting of long pants and a head covering, in two public swimming pools in his city for reasons of hygiene.
On 11 March 2011 President Sarkozy fired his advisor for diversity and integration, Abdherrahmane Dahmane, after he openly criticized the Union for a Popular Movement’s (UMP) upcoming debate on Islam and secularism. Many leading voices in the UMP expressed reservations about the debate, fearing it could lead to the stigmatization of Muslims. At the time, Defense Minister Alain Juppe said that “we must control this debate because it would be unimaginable to stigmatize the second largest religion in France.” On 04 April 2011 Interior Minister Claude Gueant told journalists that the growing number of Muslims in France “poses a problem.” According to Gueant, “the increasing numbers of followers and a certain number of their behaviors cause problems.” Gueant was quickly denounced by politicians, Muslim organizations, and human rights associations.
In January 2012 French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said six women hade been convicted and fined since a ban on face-covering Islamic veils took effect in April 2011. Gueant cited the figure in an interview with "Le Monde" daily, saying no woman has been sent to a citizenship class -- another potential punishment.
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