Animosity toward Muslims has been a feature of the landscape in France since before the days of Charles Martel and Roland. Today, about 10 million of France’s 70 million people are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants born in Algeria, Tunisia, and other Muslim-majority countries. These “Muslims”—a significant number are not Arabs, and many have drifted away from Islam—have long since grown weary of the discrimination they encounter while seeking jobs or admission to universities and even while walking the streets or traveling metros and trains. Since April 2011, they have had to deal with divisions among themselves cut by a new law banning women in public places from covering their faces with the burqa, niqab, and any other garments and by demands by right-wing political leaders for the police to crack down on Muslims blocking city streets to pray.
But Muslims are as never before ascending into the ranks of France’s professional and cultural élite. They are rising, like the superstar Zinédine Zidane and like a young business student named Yacine Barhim, from crowded apartments in high-rise complexes ringing the city’s urban centers. They are emerging, like a translator named Mehrézia Labidi Maïza, from the ethnic mélange in inner-city neighborhoods such as the famous Goutte d’Or near Paris’s Gare du Nord, where each Friday, until a recent government ban on street prayer, men had spread their prayer rugs over the asphalt of rue Myrha. And they are ascending in comfortable suburbs after having come to France on government scholarships to the country's prestigious universities and graduated as lawyers, physicians, entrepreneurs, and professors.
Even as racists have complained about the “color” of France’s national football team, the French people have lionized the son of Algerian immigrants, Zidane, who led Les Bleus to the 1998 World Cup Championship... and its gut-wrenching disaster in the cup finals eight years later. A one-armed actor and comedian of Moroccan descent, Jamel Debbouze, has entertained the Francophone world with his stand-up routines and roles as the fruit-monger’s helper in Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain and the pharoah’s architect in Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre.
In 2004, Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of interior, appointed the first person of Muslim origin to be a senior police chief. As president, Sarkozy appointed Rachida Dati to be minister of justice. In August 2009, at the world championship track meet in Rome, a Frenchman out-dueled a Kenyan in the final yards of the steeplechase to become the only European to medal in a men’s distance race; his name: Bouabdellah Tahri. During his victory lap, all of France was mourning dozens of Comorians from Marseille who perished in an airplane crash.
Integration is a tortuous, generations-long climb for France’s Muslims. The grade grows steeper whenever popular prejudice is aggravated by car burnings and attacks on the police by immigrants or their young adult children. Perhaps nowhere is the ascent tougher than from one of France’s roughest housing projects, the Cité Félix-Pyat in Marseille. Perhaps nowhere is the effort to open the way more pronounced than in the Goutte d’Or.
Continue reading about the Muslim communities of Paris and Marseille in Chuck Sudetic’s “The Future Is Open” (available in English and French). The At Home in Europe project report on Muslims in Paris will be released next month.