Ni patrie ni frontières
Slogan du site
Descriptif du site
The rise of Muslim religion in France and its negative political consequences for the Left (2005)
Article mis en ligne le 20 septembre 2023

To begin with, I have to confess that it’s almost impossible to have an objective and neutral view about the theme of this speech.
There are at least three objective reasons :

1) Nobody agrees on the exact number of Muslims in France. For a very simple reason : the law forbids collecting statistics about religion or about ethnical origins in France. And the situation is complicated by the fact that most people automatically credit North Africans, Turks, and Africans of being Muslims as if it was in their genes.
But if we want to be serious about the authentic meaning of being Muslim, i.e. to believe in God, or more specifically to be submitted to God, the most reasonable number is 3 million in a country of 66,9 million inhabitants. One can claim, like many people do, that Islam is the "second religion” in France but that affirmation has not much sense because sociologists do not agree about the percentage of "Muslims” who seriously practice Islam, that is who pray five times a day, respect food prohibitions, go to the mosque on Fridays and respect the fast during the month of Ramadan. According to the inquiries, the statistics of pious Muslims vary from 20 to 70 % !

2) If there is no national scientific study on the religious and political practices of Muslims in France, there are nevertheless many books written by journalists or social scientists, but they are generally biased :
 Right-wing journalists or social scientists denounce a mythical "Islamist plot” to convert not only France but also all Europe ;
 Left-wing journalists or social scientists share the basic values of multiculturalism and identity politics. If their criticism of French neo-colonialism is quite accurate, they also want to restrict secularism even if they pretend to be in favour of an "open secularism” One must never forget that French secularism was initially part of a larger fight for equality and against the way the Church dominated the school system and public space.
Those who defend an "open secularism” renounce to defend women’s rights and freedoms in the name of the famous "freedom of choice” for the girls wearing the hijab.

3) Third objective difficulty : I do not belong to any national organization which would be rooted in working class districts all over French territory and could present you a clear view of what has been happening for the last 20 years.
To these three objective difficulties, I must also add a subjective one : Left-wing intellectuals and the political parties of the Left and Far Left are very confused about religious questions in general, and Islam in particular.

How some people twist the meaning of Islam and Muslim religion

Normally Islam is basically a religion. So one should consider as Muslims only those who practice this religion. But many intellectuals consider that being a Muslim is something "cultural” and not mainly religious. This is the trick used for example by Third-Worldists, Maoists, multiculturalists and by the militants of the British SWP tendency in France. The process runs roughly through the following scheme :

1) First, they broaden the meaning of the word "Muslim” or Islam and transform it into a loose cultural reference ;
2) once they have succeeded this magic trick, the concept is sufficiently vague to be filled with any content. The advantage is that they can change this content, as cultures change often. And they have two additional bonuses : a) interpretations of Islam do not need to be coherent between themselves and b) this nebulous concept creates a fictitious ideological unity between people from opposed social classes and from opposed political views. After all, they are all "Muslims,” belonging to the same imaginary "community.”
3) Once this concept is accepted, people who were born (or whose parents, or grandparents were bom) in a country where Islam was the dominating religion are obliged to call themselves Muslims even they are atheists. If they do not accept this label, they are considered as "traitors” not only to their supposed religion, but also to their fatherland, their culture and even their so-called "race.”
Malek Boutih, a right-wing Socialist party leader, and Fadela Amara, leader of the Ni putes ni soumises movement are two important figures of North-African descent. Their adversaries label them as almost "Whites” because they supposedly betray their "religion” or their "race.” A bit like Afro-Americans who are sold to the Euro-American establishment are labelled “Oreos” (the Oreo being a cookie which is black outside and white inside).
4) The fourth step is to mix and confuse the question of racism with so-called Islamophobia.
5) And the fifth and final step is to oblige all non-Muslims, even if they are atheists, to define themselves as Islamophiles or better... Muslims. Once more the French friends of the British SWP have been particularly creative when they invented the slogan : "We are all Muslims"
Things have come full circle : multiculturalists start twisting the meaning of a basically religious notion and end obliging all Left-wing people to call themselves Muslims by fear of being called racists.
The “cry of the oppressed” or the “opium of the people” ?

Revolutionary Marxists have often defended a schematic view of religion, reducing it either to the “cry of the oppressed” or to the “opium of the people.”

Those who see religion as the “opium of the people” tend to believe that a good detoxification cure would suffice to deal with the grip of religion on society : in other words, rational and scientific education and technical progress will automatically lead to the disappearance of religious alienation.

Those who see religion as the “cry of the oppressed” tend to be “soft” (i.e. opportunist) or neutral with religious groups. For these militants (and the British SWP offers once more an example of this policy), the fact that religion can be a distorted expression of the pains and revolts of the “oppressed” leads them to see religion, and in particular Islam, as a quasi revolutionary ideology which can, or will, easily find the path of socialist revolution.

To top it all, Marx’s article called “The Jewish Question” has not helped ( to say the least) Marxists to deal with religious phenomena. Sentences like “What is the secular basis of Judaism ? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew ? Huckstering. What is his worldly God ? Money." “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist” have not armed Marxists to understand the nature of religion in general.

Five negative consequences

Despite these objective and subjective difficulties, I’ll try to present you some basic data about the rise of the Muslim religion in France and its five main negative consequences that I’ll list briefly :

  the rise of Islam in France has created new divisions inside the Left and the Far Left, not only inside these groups but also inside mass associations, trade unions, etc. where these militants are active ;
  the rise of Islam has weakened the influence of feminist values in French society ;
  the rise of Islam has weakened secular values in the political field ;
  the rise of Islam has limited even more the political debates to purely moral and false alternatives : for example, either you are an atheist, a racist and an Islamophobe, or you are an antiracist, pro hijab and soft with religion and Islamism ;
  the rise of Islam in France has introduced an important confusion in the political debate about colonialism : as the French Third Republic introduced secularism and also waged colonial wars, secularism is accused, per se, of being racist, colonialist and islamophobic.
After having sketched the main lines of my contribution, I will go back to the history of the rise of Islam in France and its consequences on the Left and Far Left.

The first question we must ask ourselves is :

Who is concerned by this new religious phenomenon ?

For the last 20 years the rise of Islam has touched all sorts of people :

* old migrant workers who had an almost clandestine religious practice until recently and were praying in cellars, garages and former industrial premises (in France there exists only 64 mosques but 2,500 prayer rooms) ;
* their sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters who have climbed up the social scale, have studied at the university and want their religion (Islam) to become a cult respected by all French people, and specifically by French authorities ;
* recent migrants who are proud to be Muslim and do not see why they should hide their faith,
* new converts, from all ethnical origins ("French” but also Portuguese, etc.)

Islam has rooted itself in all social classes and its rise has obviously had important social consequences ; the most visible effect concerns the French school system (right to wear the hijab at school, right to eat halal food at the factory restaurant, right to be dispensed from gym classes, opposition to the content of some philosophy or history classes, etc.).

  The rise of Islam and the Left

This new phenomenon has surprised all political parties including the Left, both reformist and revolutionary militants.

Historically, French Communist and Socialist parties have never been truly interested neither in massively recruiting among migrant workers nor in defending their basic rights. Almost from their creation, the Communist Party and Socialist Party have been nationalist parties defending the interest of French and now European imperialism.

One must recall that Socialist and Communist parties either did not support at all anticolonial movements, either waited the last minute to show a minimum of solidarity. This is true of the two main colonial wars (Indochina and Algeria, although the Communist Party was more active against the first one then against the second one) waged by French military forces, but it’s also true for the presence and numerous interventions of French troops in Africa until today. Not to mention the integration of Martinique, Guadeloupe, New Caledonia and French Guyana into the French Republic as "territoires d’outre-mer” or "départements d’outre-mer.”

Apart from a few sentimental speeches in meetings, basically, Socialist and Communist parties thought that so-called "foreigners” should either come back to their native countries after a short stay for economic reasons, or stay discrete, invisible in France.

Communist and Socialist parties thought that migrants should be controlled by community organisations especially designed for them : basically the "Amicales” which regroup workers from one country : Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, etc., and are controlled by the embassies and political polices of these regimes.

Communist and Socialist parties never struggled very actively against racism in their own ranks and in the working class, even if the Communist Party was a dominant force in the MRAP (Movement against racism, anti- Semitism and for peace) and even if the Socialist Party had strong ties with the LICRA (specialised in the struggle against anti-Semitism) and with SOS Racisme, a youth organisation which appeared in the 1980s.

Communist and Socialist parties never had a long-term political perspective concerning migrant workers : they did not want to organise them on a political program to help them continue the fight in their native countries if they were to come back home.

In the 1970s the Communist Party opposed the famous tenants’ strikes of the SONACOTRA hostels, strikes that were supported by the Maoists. On one occasion a Communist Party mayor even used a bulldozer in Vitry to kick-out the immigrant squatters. In 1991, the leadership of the French Communist Party distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets saying that "with 3, 5 million of unemployed, one must stop any new immigration” and that "immigrant families are (...) among the first beneficiaries of the money distributed to the poorest fraction of the population’’ ! The same leaflet ended with the traditional denunciation of drugs, delinquency, and violence.

The Far Left was a bit more interested in foreign workers, especially the Maoists in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but they never gained a mass influence neither among so-called "autochthonous” workers nor among migrant workers.

French secular tradition

Concerning the place of religion in social and political life, both the Left and Far Left held until the 1980s a secular position, influenced by the national bourgeois Republican tradition : religion was a private matter, and Islam was no exception to this rule. This conception of secularism was obviously not very strictly applied, as testifies the state-financing of all religious cults in the Alsace region, but at least this philosophy was shared by all parties. Even if the Left and the Right did not put the same meaning behind the world "secularism,” there was a tacit agreement about it.

Everything changed when French Muslims and foreign Muslims living in France started to be more demanding about their rights : the right to build mosques and Muslim cemeteries, to have special meals at work or at school, to receive money from municipalities to finance their associations, etc.

This change was partly linked to the official closure of immigration in 1974 and to the consequent changes it provoked in French society. Basically, to make a long story short, workers who were working in France and had left their wives and children at home, asked their families to come and live and France. Their decision, which was a reaction to governmental restrictions, changed the nature of immigration : foreign migrants decided to settle in France, their children born in France were automatically French until 1993 (since 1993, they have to ask for French nationality after their 13th birthday and one of their parents needs to have a stay permit) and those born abroad could become French after 18, and part of them progressively felt the necessity to transmit their religious beliefs to their sons and daughters.

Muslim bashing during workers strikes

Traditionally, in the 1950s and 1960s North African and African workers had non-qualified jobs in big factories and were generally supporting the Communist-Party-dominated union, called CGT (General Confederation of Labour).

Already in 1983-1984, Pierre Mauroy, the Socialist Prime minister of France, denounced the strikers of Talbot factory because, according to him, they were "manipulated’’ by "imams.” "Muslim bashing” started in the media, during several strikes in the auto industry (Peugeot, Renault and Citroën) around Paris mainly among Moroccan workers. These strikes were defending workers dignity, fighting downsizing, and included for the first time some demands linked to Muslim religious practice.

In fact, far from being manipulated by imaginary "French Taliban,” Muslim workers started more and more to respect the basic principles of their religion ; for example, during these strikes, they prayed inside the factory itself, instead of waiting for the end of the day and regrouping the prayers they were not able to do at work ; or they started bringing their own food at work, or fasting, instead of eating at the factory restaurant ; they respected the fast of the Ramadan which they did not do massively before, etc.

The Communist Party and Islam

The “Left” first came back to power in 1981. The Communist Party did not stay long in the government (two years). So the Stalinists did not have many occasions to attack Muslims on a national-governmental level, but in the municipalities Communist Party mayors were confronted to the rise of Islam in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1990s, the position of the Communist Party changed, partly because the Stalinist Party became a more and more heterogeneous organisation, divided into competing fractions of the apparatus, each one claiming to be to the Left of the Central committee. Communist Party local mayors responded basically with two opposite attitudes, as shown by the example of two working class suburbs of Lyon, the second biggest town of France (1,5 million inhabitants), and one of the most active and lively centers for all Muslim tendencies, from those who joined the Taliban in Afghanistan to the friends of Tariq Ramadan or more moderate tendencies.

The Communist Party mayor of Vaux-en-Vélin chose the traditional Keynesian, welfare state position. He invested money in swimming pools, municipal libraries, activities for "baby-swimmers” and all sorts of activities for the youth, what we call in French "Maisons de la culture,” Houses of culture.

The Communist Party mayor of Venissieux chose a different policy to deal with social problems : he decided (as other right-wing mayors have done sometimes in their municipalities) to make an alliance with local Muslim forces. The Communist Party mayor gave "temporary jobs" (emplois-jeunes) to young Muslims in the state School system or in the municipal administration, in order to ensure social peace. He also participated to campaigns to free French suspects locked in Guantanamo, etc.
The French friends of the British SWP

As regards the Far Left, the only organisation which has a strong "prohijab” and antisecular tendency is the LCR : the two tendencies linked to the British SWP, Socialisme par en bas (Socialism from below) and Socialisme international represent something like 10 % of the LCR, that is around 200 militants over 2,000. But pro-SWP militants influence the JCR (youth organization of the LCR). This policy has led the pro-SWP militants in France to some ridiculous attempts :

 they tried to develop political agitation in mosques, by supposedly imitating the example of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s in the Asian Republics of the USSR. Gerry Birne wrote three articles about this period in your newspaper Solidarity, so I’m not going to deal in detail with this point. Whatever you think about the Bolsheviks and their policy towards Islam, you can’t seriously compare the situation, 80 years ago, in these areas of Central Asia populated by peasants and nomads living in feudal or tribal conditions to the situation of migrant workers living in the industrial suburbs of a highly advanced capitalist country like France or Britain today.

  The pro-SWP militants in France also organized a solidarity concert where they had decided to ban alcohol and were obliged to sell it under the pressure of the participants.

  On a "theoretical” level, the pro-hijab militants inside the LCR defend the idea that a new Muslim religion theology may appear, and this is one the reasons why they are so kind with a reactionary bigot like Tariq Ramadan.

  They are very soft with the Iranian regime and present the specific position of women in Iran as linked to the mullahs’ policy, ignoring almost one century of feminist struggles in Iran. (As if women’s less disadvantaged position in Swedish society was put to the credit of social democracy, while Swedish capitalists decided to massively hire women in the industry at the end of 19th century.)

But the worse is that these pro-hijab militants also participate in larger struggles and alliances with anti-secular forces. That is, a good part of the ATTAC (anti-globalization) milieu, all sorts of third-worldist groups, the Christian Left, L’Ecole pour tous-toutes, etc. (L’Ecole pour tous is a movement regrouping left-wing multiculturalists of various sorts and Islamists.) This unprincipled alliance is waged in the name of the struggle against racism and "Islamophobia.”
I suppose you are familiar with these arguments, so I’ll just note that in the ‘60s and ‘70s the French revolutionary Left used to hail "immigrant WORKERS,” the second word being more important than the first. Today the same Far Left does not refer anymore to workers, just to "migrants” or to "sans papiers” (undocumented). Any reference to the working class has disappeared from the propaganda of the Left-wing "pro hijab” and antisecular forces.

Catholic and Protestant religious revival and rise of Islam

The rise of Islam coincides with a revival concerning other religions :

  Catholicism : its most visible sign has been the JMJ, World Youth Day, in Paris in 1997 with the presence of the Pope, but one must also underline that more and more intellectuals and journalists express in the media their sympathy for Catholic religion and for John Paul II, something that never happened before. (The same remark can be made about Bergoglio, alias Pope François, and his popularity among intellectuals. Jean-Luc Mélenchon the leader of the “leftish” La France Insoumise, a renowned atheist, even approved the pope’s writings about migrants and his critique (?) of capitalism, in an interview on French TV in September 2023.)
The French right is also trying to promote new courses about religion in the Public Education System, a project that is clearly aimed at defending "Christian values,” with the pretext that the ignorant youth should know better the content of the "religions that have founded world’s civilizations.”

  Protestantism : Pentecostalism is gaining ground, particularly among French West Indian people living in working class suburbs,
  Judaism : Jewish organisations agitate in favour of Israeli governments, the Aliah (return to the "Holly Land”) and Tsahal (they collect funds for the Israeli military forces).

This multifaceted religious activism is important but until now one must recognize that it has not led to the creation of new parties, heavily influenced by religion. In general, French religious people try to work inside the main parties, not to build their own on a sectarian basis, even if there is Christian trade union (CFTC) and one Christian-Democrat party (the UDF – This party disappeared in 2007 and split in at least four groups.).

French Islam : real and imaginary dangers

In the case of Islam, its rise has not been accompanied by the growth of any significant party or group that would defend, for example, the social and political model imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan or Khomeini in Iran.

Despite all the efforts of the racist or right-wing media to invent an "Islamist’’ plot, there is no danger that political Islam will grow and take power in France.

That does not mean that there will never be some clandestine cells of Al Qaida or other jihadist-terrorist groups hiding in France or even preparing attacks on French soil, as it happened several times in the last 30 years. But jihadist-terrorist ideas will affect only a microscopic fraction of the so-called "Muslim’’ population.

What is at stake is very different ; it’s a long-term and steady erosion of some basic aspects of secularism inside public services (mainly School and Health systems, and state Administration) through all sorts of means :

  halal food (in theory, I’m not against providing halal food, but a state school may have serious problems if it wants to satisfy all the demands of all micro groups about food : vegetarians, vegans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.),
  attendance to swimming pool or gym classes,
  problems when pupils go out at night to see plays or films with their teacher,
  participation in theatre groups,
  discussions about certain aspects of the philosophy or history curriculum, disagreements with the way of dealing with religion, etc.
  In some hospitals Muslim husbands ask for a female doctor or surgeon, etc., for their wife ;
  in private medical offices, strong pressures are exerted on young girls by their parents : they should stay modest, keep their eyes down, etc.
Unfortunately, until now, only right-wing papers, superficial television programs and right-wing intellectuals collect information about these negative facts concerning daily life. It’s very difficult to collect and check information from Left-wing militants : usually they are afraid of being labelled racists and the Far Left press does not deal with these questions.

What lies behind the rise of Islam and its negative political or social consequences ?

The present situation in France is partly linked to the disappearance of class-consciousness, especially among the working-class youth. The problem is perhaps that they are increasingly not working class, just poor. Few have ever had a real job. They do not have any ties of solidarity with the working class. If their parents were workers, many were hurt by unemployment and delocalizations. They totally lack identity – except for brand names, neighbourhood gangs, and religion or football teams.

During the last twenty years, the organisations which have been influential in the youth (SOS Racisme, Ni putes ni soumises, for example) and have organized hundreds or thousands of people outside the traditional Left and Far Left groups have accustomed the youth to reason in terms of race and not in terms of class : the famous slogan of the 1980s was "Black, Blancs, Beurs.”

This tendency to view all social problems with purely "moral glasses" has been facilitated by the general evolution of the political scene.

Marxism, communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, revolution, armed insurrections or general strikes are no more at the center of political debates. What is trendy and vital today is to be "antiracist” and "against liberalism’’ or "liberal capitalism.”

To be racist is bad and to be in favour of liberalism is evil. One should "respect all differences” and promote a "fair” or "ethical” trade and "fair” capitalism. The daily political propaganda of the anti-globalization movement, the antiracist movement and most Left thinkers does not go beyond this very minimum program, which is, in fact, their maximum program.

Political adaptation

In a situation where the political level of the youth has constantly declined, the Far Left has adapted itself to the most backward elements of the anti-globalization and antiracist Left. This explains why these militants are so soft not only with Islam, political Islam, Tariq Ramadan, so-called "Muslim feminism,” etc., but also Catholic religion. For example, the Collectif des sans papiers (an organization defending undocumented migrants) felt obliged to write a press release when Pope John Paul II died to express its deep solidarity with the grief of all the Catholics who supported their struggle !

In such a situation, which is marked by a setback not only of workers struggles, but also of some basic socialist or class ideas, the perspectives are rather gloomy.

What are the forces that oppose the rise of Islam and its negative political consequences ?

  Two of the three main Trotskyist groups (le Parti des travailleurs and Lutte ouvrière) have kept a traditional secular and atheist position. But they have no mass influence in working class suburbs and especially among foreign workers and their descendants. Le Parti des travailleurs is a very right-wing group linked to the Free Masons (Since this text was written it split into 2 groups : POI and POID). As regards Lutte ouvrière it has adopted a strangely non-critical position towards Ni putes ni soumises, a position which looks like a trick to evade its political responsibilities towards immigrants and their descendants.

  Ni putes ni soumises defends very moderate political positions. Its leader, Fadela Amara, claims that she is proud to live in a "lovely democracy” like France and boasts to be "franchouillarde” (a soft form of froggy chauvinism) [Today, in 2023, this association seems to have almost disappeared.]

  And the third force opposing or partly opposing the rise of Islam stands on the other side of the barricades, includes the extreme right (Front national) and traditional right-wing parties, etc.

It may be useful to explain that part of the Right and especially its most ambitious politician Nicolas Sarkozy have recently made important ideological changes : Sarkozy defends a form of affirmative action although he has not taken any concrete steps in this direction [Actually it was just a gimmick for a few months.] And he has already strengthened the links between the French state and religious forces, especially Islam : French imams’ training will be controlled and financed by the state ; he created the Conseil consultatif du culte musulman (today, in 2023, in a very deep crisis), which regroups the various Muslim tendencies and is supposed to represent the Muslim community, as was shown when some delegates when to meet the Ulemas Council in Bagdad when the French journalist Florence Aubenas was kidnapped. Progressively, an organisation that has officially purely religious aims is taking political positions, helped by right-wing parties.

The disappearance of local solidarity links

Local and class solidarity links were partly secured, even on a reformist or Stalinist political basis, by working class parties, trade unions and all sorts of local associations. These links are disappearing or have already disappeared in most places.

In such a situation, religious groups (from all religions) are partly replacing social links which have disappeared and they try to found new religious communities. Naturally, Islam plays its role in this context.

Negative consequences on feminism

The rise of Islam in France has also had very negative effects on feminist ideas and feminism.

Feminism has never been a mass movement in France, but it has been permanently under attack : ridiculed by the media (including the bourgeois women’s press which flirted with feminism like the magazine Elle), attacked by right-wing politicians, and defamed by the integration of some prominent careerist feminists in the Socialist Party or in state institutions.

But now feminism has found new unexpected enemies on the Left : Tariq Ramadan and anti-globalization Third-Worldist tendencies as well as Leftish Muslim intellectuals explain that Ni putes ni soumises and other moderate feminists give a negative image, or to be more precise, a racist image of North-African males living in France or French males of North- African descent. A whole book has been devoted to this theme (Les féministes et le garçon arabe written by Guénif-Souilamas and Éric Macé) a book that constantly used references to race concepts that before were totally alien to the culture of the Left.

These so-called Left-wingers denounce Ni putes ni soumises and bourgeois feminists because of their links with the Socialist Party or because of their moderate political views. This position could sound correct if they did not have something else in mind. In fact, they do not appreciate that these women denounce machismo, sexual harassment, rape and homophobia in proletarian suburbs.
L’Ecole pour tous website, for example, published an article attacking "Ni putes ni soumises" for having invited Elisabeth Badinter, a moderate feminist, in one of its meetings in Fontenay-sous-Bois a working class suburb. The author uses 8 times the expression the "white Badinter." Instead of criticizing Badinter’s politics, she prefers to denounce her "whiteness." As everyone knows that Badinter is Jewish, it’s obvious that the term "white" is systematically used to avoid problems with the laws against anti-Semitism. And this article is published on a website which is very left-wing, very critical towards the National Front and the right-wing parties...

This kind of situation is probably one of the most perverse effects of Left and anti-globalization movement’s attitude towards Islam : this political milieu refuses to denounce machismo, homophobic attitudes and male violence in working class suburbs because these districts are populated by people who are oppressed by neo-colonialism and French racism ! And when they are unable to justify their political positions, they invent a fictitious fight between "Whites" and "Blacks," or "Whites" and "Arabs," exactly like the Right and Far Right do when they want to mobilise the most backward layers of French population.
In the 1960s, it was often said : "One should not discourage Billancourt." Billancourt the biggest Renault factory at that time, regrouping 30,000 workers. Today it’s not Billancourt which the Left is afraid to despair it’s an imaginary radical Muslim community !

Yves Coleman, Ni patrie ni frontières, 2005