PARIS - They call themselves Les Resilientes, the Resisters, and they meet every week in a couple of modest rooms in the immigrant neighborhood of Saint-Denis, on the northern outskirts of Paris. Their main purpose is to provide a refuge for women who have been victims of violence, but they are fighting another battle as well.
Though most of the Resilientes are Muslims of North African heritage, they are resisting other Muslims -- the growing influence and strength of a conservative, fundamentalist Islam in their neighborhood.
“What worries me is that it's developing; it's not retreating,” the group’s founder and president, Rachida Hamdan, told me during a visit in June to the Resilientes center, located on a charmless avenue lined with public housing estates. “More and more, for example, you see little girls wearing the veil, which I oppose because I see it as a symbol of female submission. But it's also an act of open defiance against the Republic,” she said, referring to French laws that limit wearing certain religious identifiers in public. “You see it in front of the schools, mothers telling other mothers that their children should be veiled. I've been told by 17-year-old boys that I'm not a true Muslim because I'm not veiled. Who is telling them to say things like that?”
“If they force us to close our doors, they will have everything,” she said, “they” being the conservative imams and elected officials who, she says, depend on the Muslim vote in her immigrant neighborhood. “They'll have the city hall, the cafes, the movie theaters, the schools, the money. If we go, there will be nothing in the way of their radical program.”
Hamdan's worries reflect a striking change in France. For decades, raising alarms about what is widely called “Islamization” has been the province of the far right, especially the anti-immigrant National Front, now called the Rally for the Nation, which is the country's second most powerful political party. And today too, many French of liberal persuasion resist criticism of Islam because it echoes, in their view, the racism and anti-Semitism that has afflicted France's and Europe's past, including the attempted anti-Muslim genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
But four years ago France was profoundly jolted by two terrorist attacks carried out by extremist Muslims ‒ one at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo where 12 journalists were gunned down, and a series of three coordinated attacks a few months later in which 130 people were killed, including 90 during a concert at the Bataclan theater. Over the months and years since then, the worry about Islamization has clearly gone mainstream.
“We're totally past the point where it's the fascist far right and the National Front electorate who are standing up against Islamization,” Marie-Laure Brossier, a city councilor from the Paris suburb of Bagnolet and an ally of Hamdan’s, told me. “The Islamo-left labels us fascists and right-wingers, but that's just an effort on their part to discredit us. Practically all of the activists that I work with and who are fighting against the Islamist effort to push religion into the public space are on the left.”
“It's clear that there is a big change,” Pierre Manent, a political philosopher at the prestigious School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. “We've had a substantial immigration, the major part of which consists of Muslims coming from North Africa, Afghanistan, Syria, and other places. The doctrine of successive governments has been to minimize the changes that this has brought about and especially to say that any worries about it are exaggerated. The policy has even prevented us from having clear statistics, because of the idea that the republic is open to all. So the tendency has been to prevent a calm discussion of the question. But a growing part of the culture is Muslim, much of which resists assimilation. That's a fact.
“When you reach a certain critical mass,” he continued, “integration becomes impossible. It isn't even desirable any more for any of the parties in question. We may already be there.”
Perhaps the statistic most talked about in France in 2019 is 18.8%. That, according to Jérôme Fourquet, the director of the mainstream French public opinion research firm IFOP, is the percentage of children currently being born in France whose parents are giving them Islamic or Arab names. For the first time ever, Fourquet has found, the name Mohammed is among the top 20 names of children in France, and because the average age of Muslims in France is lower and their birthrate higher than the rest of the population, it seems likely that there will be more Mohammeds in the future.
Fourquet's finding riveted the French media, which widely reported the overall conclusion, for which the Islamic surnames was just one piece of evidence. His evidence suggested that, culturally speaking, France is no longer a continuous cultural domain but, as suggested by the title of his book “The French Archipelago,” it is a conglomeration of separate and distinct cultural islands. We are in “the terminal stage of the deChristianization of France,” Fourquet wrote, meaning that the cultural-religious cement that once held France together has evaporated. “There is no common culture any more. Every group has its own references. Each is big enough to pretend to live, produce, and consume its own culture.”
Fourquet doesn't raise alarms about this multicultural fact, but many others, citing his conclusions, do. They argue that under pressure from a disciplined, well-financed, Islamist core, French Islam is shifting in a fundamentalist direction. Just as so much of America’s discourse centers increasingly on race, immigration, and national identity, a great deal of public discussion, debate, arguments at dinner parties, in newspaper columns and on television talk shows has to do with the difference that Islam represents in France, and whether that difference is compatible with French values.
Much of the discussion has to do with religious dress. French laws prohibit girls from wearing the veil in school and women from wearing the burqa or the hijab -- full, face-concealing garments -- in public, and these laws appear to be observed in most places, especially in schools. But the sight of women in headscarves pushing baby carriages is almost standard in France now.
After Fourquet's book appeared, feature articles gave examples of the cultural fragmentation he described, such as one in the magazine Valeurs on the town of Dreux, about 50 miles west of Paris -- situated, the magazine said, “between a historical city and an Islamized one.” The town has its bourgeois center with its half-timbered houses, medieval facades, traditional shops, and the historic Saint-Louis Chapel, while on the outskirts are seven mosques and three Muslim prayer halls, bearded imams, halal groceries, and apparently unemployed young people drawn to the drug trade and violence.
Dreux, the magazine warns, is “a city that prefigures the France of tomorrow.”
The issue is sometimes presented as a conflict within Islam, in which Islamization is, ironically, a conservative reaction against the influence of the surrounding French culture
Ironically, some Muslims have the opposite concern.
“The dark fear [of Islamic fundamentalism] is that in its contact with France, its secularism and hospitality, Islam will be secularized and will disappear,” the magazine Marianne, whose readership is well-educated, worldly, and sophisticated, wrote in a similar vein earlier this year. “Copiously financed by Arabian countries, the Islamists are mobilizing to prevent this dire evolution. ... The operation has succeeded in France.”
As if to prove that assertion, a new book, “Qatar Papers,” by veteran journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, uses a set of leaked documents to reveal what they call “a very extensive, spidery network” financed by the Persian Gulf state of Qatar in support of Islamic fundamentalism in France and other European countries. The authors cite 140 separate documented projects, including mosques, schools, and Islamic centers, often, they claim, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose aim is “to strengthen the Islamic identity of Muslim minorities in Europe [and] to transport, transfer, and export political Islam to the Islamic communities of Europe.
Or, as the Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, who is a literary celebrity in France, put it: “In some districts, France is a germinating Islamic Republic.”
It is hard to measure the reach of such efforts. But polls show that many of the French worry about both immigration and challenges to one of the country's bedrock principles, laïcité in French, which is a reference to a law of 1905 that established a strict separation of church and state. A recent poll by the left-of-center Jean Juarès Foundation found that 74% of the public “believes that laïcité is in danger,” compared to 58% 14 years ago. The same survey found 70% of the French public agreeing with the statement “Immigration is a worrisome process that causes problems of coexistence between different cultures.” Still, mainstream publications such as the newspaper Le Monde and the main television stations have not bought into the idea that a radicalized Islam in France is mounting a mortal threat to basic French values.
Hervé LeBras, a well-known demographer and director of research at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, says that the numbers of Muslims in France are, one, exaggerated, and, two, misinterpreted. In an interview in June, he showed me demographic surveys indicating, for example, that only one-third of Muslims in France regularly pray at a mosque, and daily prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam. In other words, whatever the worries that Islamic militants may have about secularism and assimilation, secularism and assimilation are taking place, as they have among Christians and Jews, and that whatever money Qatar might be spending in the country, there is no fundamentalist wave sweeping the entire Muslim population of France away with it.
Overall, Le Bras said, referring to tables on the foreign population of France over the last century, the percentage of the total non-French population has barely increased. In 1931, for example, it was 6.6%; in 2015 it was 6.7%.
“I have confidence in assimilation,” Le Bras told me. “I don't have confidence in public opinion, and if public opinion rejects this immigration, the immigrants will close in on themselves. There will be a kind of social dialectic that hasn't happened yet, but it's a risk.”
Still, as a former resident of France and a frequent visitor over the past 40 years, I was struck on my trip there in June how wide the alarm over Muslim immigration has become. Everybody seems to have an anecdote:
- About the imam who told a teacher to stop teaching French to his two wives because women's reading should be only of the Koran, in Arabic.
- About women being banned from cafes in immigrant neighborhoods because of the sexual segregation demanded by Islam.
- About the butcher in rural France who, responding to pressure from local Muslims, removed pictures of pigs from his shop's display windows.
- About the refusal of Muslim students in public schools to observe a minute of silence for the seven Jews, three of them children, murdered in 2012 by a self-proclaimed, French-born jihadist, Mohammed Merah, reportedly much admired in some French Muslim circles.
The question is: Do these isolated incidents represent an alienated fringe, or do they reflect something much larger, and growing? Perhaps one of the most widely discussed of books arguing the latter is a 700-page tome, “A History of French Islamisation, 1979-2019,” published this spring to immediate and heated controversy. Its main argument: that a kind of political correctness, a fear of being branded Islamophobic, has led French elites to turn a blind eye to the rapid spread of fundamentalist Islamic practices in France, some of them illegal.
There were plenty of negative reviews of the book -- which, somewhat strangely, was written anonymously -- but also plenty of admiration for it, not only on the far right. The mainstream weekly news magazine Le Point, for example, praised it as “a factual book that shows us how, through a process of accommodation, we have come to accept a slow Islamization of French society.”
The fact that the authors are unknown has given rise to considerable speculation ‒ that he, or she, or they, are members of the Rally for the Nation or some other far-right group, which would undermine its credibility with more moderate French people. But whatever the reason for the anonymity, the book is striking for its copious documentation. It is sharply and often cleverly written, and veritably savage in its view that “Islamo-leftism” has been allowed to flourish in France because of a cowardly, blind political correctness on the part of the political and journalistic elite.
Among the examples of Islamization taking place over the years, according to the book:
- In many areas, the 2010 law banning women from wearing the full veil in public “is hardly enforced, because instructions are often given to the police not to do it in areas under Islamic control.”
- To accommodate Muslim dietary rules, the rules about the humane and safe slaughter of animals are widely disregarded, such that, as Le Point put it, the French “have halal meat on their plates without even knowing it.”
- In some of areas with large Muslim populations, non-Muslim children are attacked for eating in public during Ramadan, the month-long ritual by which Muslims are allowed only one meal per day (in the evening).
Supporting some of the book's claims, especially about the intimidating effect that the accusation “Islamophobic” has had on the public discourse, is another recent book, written by Philippe d'Iribarne, the 82-year-old director of research at the very mainstream French National Center for Scientific Research.
“The Islamophobic discourse casts away all reflection and all debate on the very serious question: What would a satisfactory integration of Islam or Muslims be in the Western world?” d'Iribarne writes in “Islamphobia: An Ideological Intoxication.” “Those [Muslims] who wish to integrate themselves fully in the Western world fear a social pressure from their community that aims to prevent it.”
Like the authors of the “History of French Islamisation,” D'Iribarne takes special aim at the French far left — the “useful idiots of Islamophobia,” he calls them -- who portray Muslims in general as victims of historic colonialism and current capitalism and who are all too ready to apply the label Islamophobe on anybody expressing disagreement with them. They “see in Muslims a substitute for the working class that has massively betrayed progressive ideals,” d'Iribarne writes.
“It's an ideology that comes behind a mask of victimization,” Zineb el Rhazoui, a Muslim-born journalist and former writer for Charlie Hebdo, told me in Paris, referring to the alliance between Islamic activists and the secular far left. “Even as a Muslim-born person, I don't know where Islamism starts,” Rhazoui said. “What I know is that it's a very dangerous ideology that uses the freedom it has under democracy to violate the law.”
There would be agreement with this at the center for Les Resilientes in Saint-Denis, where Hamdan and her colleagues gathered one recent Wednesday. Among them was Brossier, the city councilor from the nearby suburb of Bagnolet, who talked about the constant battle that, in her view, needs to be fought, especially in immigrant districts like hers, to preserve the values of laïcité.
She talked about efforts by Muslim activists, resisted so far, to establish separate times in public swimming pools for women and men, girls and boys. She challenged city officials who, apparently under pressure from local Muslim activists, refused to officiate at gay marriages, even though gay marriage is sanctioned by French law. She participated in a campaign to close a Muslim religious school set up in government-owned premises in Bagnolet and where, she said, some 80 children were being bused every day, instead of to public schools, as the law requires.
And like Hamdan, sitting beside her, she spoke of receiving numerous threats.
“The intimidation, the pressure we get is enormous,” she said, adding that it comes both from the French left and from local Muslim activists. “We are constantly insulted.”