On December 2, a Paris court acquitted the leader of the far right political party Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen, of inciting racial hatred. The charges, brought against him by the antiracism group SOS Racism, involved FN posters issued ahead of regional elections in March 2010. Depicting a woman in a full black veil next to a map of France draped in the Algerian flag, with minarets shooting out of the ground like missiles, the poster bore the slogan “Non à l’Islamisme” (“No to Islamism”).
There was no mistaking the issue on which the FN was fighting this election, especially in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region—home to an estimated one million Muslims. In the heart of the region, the port city of Marseille was the first passage for many Muslim immigrants arriving in France: the first migrants from what is now Algeria arrived in the early 1900s to work in the port, followed by the subsequent recruitment of laborers from the Mediterranean and Africa and the arrival of troops from across the French Empire. The families of many of these men who fought and worked for France have since settled and form part of an increasingly diverse peuple français.
I have a French mother and close family members in the region and this particular history was unknown to me until recently when I came across Musulmans de France (Muslims of France), a three-part documentary which charts a century of Muslim presence in France. It made me wonder how many other people were in the same position. How many other people—who may have been persuaded to tick the box for the Front National in the last elections—were also ignorant of Muslim contributions in France and the complexities of French Muslim identity today?
The documentary raises questions such as: What does it mean to be French today? Is a French Muslim identity compatible with that of non-Muslims? Why the anxiety over France’s growing ethnic and religious diversity? How do French Muslims define themselves?
Muslims of France offers answers via thoroughly researched archive footage, and presents a full spectrum of those who would call themselves members of France’s Muslim community. Such documentaries deserve a wider audience both in and out of France.
More information about the film is available on the website of the production company Phares Balises.
Update November 15, 2011: The video clip from Muslims of France has been removed from this post as it is no longer publicly available on Vimeo.