Secularism: inclusion, or exclusion?

If secularism boils down to the separation of church and state, then theoretically it should allow for religious freedom since the state is not dictating what you, as a citizen, can and cannot believe, right? Your religion is your private affair.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

However, the secularism practiced in France, also known as laïcité, seems to stomp out religious sentiments of any kind, making non-religion a sort of national religion in and of itself.

French people obsess quite a lot over religion. While they are proud of their grand cathedrals, and appreciate their artistic and historic value, many French people are skeptical at best when it comes to religious beliefs. On my first day  in France (I studied abroad the summer after my Freshman year, in Lyon), my host family took me to a basilica near their house. One of the first things my host mom asked me was, “Tu crois en Dieu?” Do you believe in God?

I was taken aback by the question. It seems like a rather personal question to ask a practical stranger, as well as a big faux pas according to American culture.

“oui?” I answered, unsure of what she was getting at.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France

“Nous ne croyons pas en Dieu.” We don’t believe in God.

“Ah, je vois.” Oh, I see. I replied vaguely, both because I did not know how to say much more in French at the time, and because I was, quite frankly, not sure how to carry on the conversation. Her statement was  just so blunt.

Originally (that is over 100 years ago), the idea of laïcité in France was not so anti-religion. It was setup to keep the Catholic church from gaining too much control over French citizens and their institutions, which, I will agree, seems like a pretty good check of power. After all, this freedom of belief and the idea of separatism from the church was a large motivating force behind the French Revolution, and is consequently  still a central part of France’s national identity.

While perhaps the intentions behind French secularism were pure in the moment, France clearly didn’t know what was coming. France diversified, bringing in large immigrant populations from its North African protectorates. As it turns out, keeping the Catholic church at bay would not prove to be the challenge at hand, rather the integration of a new religion, Islam, would capture the attention of the French people.

My second night in France, around the dinner table, we ate North African sausage, merguez, with our salad, bread, cheese and wine, as we discussed the government housing that had been installed on the street right behind us, just a few years earlier. In a whisper, my host mom said, “Those are the immigrants. They are, well, poor. Tu as compris? You understand?

When my family asked me what I thought of it, I explained to them the best that I could that it was like America. We, too, have government housing in the suburbs sometimes, and honestly, I didn’t think much of it. I guess this response was to my host mom’s delight as she exclaimed. “O, elle est progressive!” Oh, she’s progressive!

Very quickly into my stay in France I became aware of the many contradictions of French culture. My host family (whom I love dearly) considered themselves to be very modern, progressive and most of all, secular. They loved North African food and we ate couscous and merguez on a regular basis, yet when it came to encountering the immigrants, they were bitter that they had moved into their middle-upper class neighborhood, le point du jour (sunrise).

My host family's house with the government funded apartments in the background

My host family’s house with the government funded apartments in the background

One day as I was walking along le point du jour with a family friend of theirs, Marie.  She clenched my arm and dragged me backwards when two Muslim boys passed us, whispering in my ear, “Nous ne les aimons pas” We don’t like them. I played dumb and asked her, “Pourquoi, ils sont egalement humains, non?” Why not, they are also human, right? To which she said coldly, “Ils sont dangereux” They are dangerous.

From my American point of view, it seemed that French secularism had moved its citizens to fear religion, and to think of it as the enemy.  I do not claim to say that all religious folks in France are perfect; I know that is not true. But I do mean to say that really, they are not well protected by the government’s secular policy, and considering their minority status in the country, especially those who practice Islam, they are une cible facile, an easy target,  and a scapegoat for many social issues in France.

Just this past weekend there was a march on Paris led by French Nationalists who chanted the national anthem and held signs calling Muslims fascists and saying that they do not have a place in French culture (Washington Post).

One anti-islam protester was quoted as saying:

“France was always a welcoming country, but for the first time we have to deal with a religion which can’t and doesn’t want to integrate itself.”

This blogger from Islamaphobia Today makes fun of the protestors, saying:

“Golly jee, I wonder how you get rid of Islam in France? Oh yes, by expelling and or otherwise repressing its 6 million adherents!”

On the other end of the spectrum, Muslim activists openly combat discrimination from their fellow citizens in quite a bold way as well. During their recent celebration of Eid, Muslims handed out free pastries to people on the streets in response to a controversial comment made by French politician Jean-Francois Copé who claimed that Muslim “thugs” were stealing pain au chocolats during their Ramadan Fast. Seems rather brazen, not to mention hilarious, to me!

That’s just it though, the French are more brash about their opinion and they display it in a much more public way than Americans. We are not immune to these social conflicts. Really, the parallel that we can draw is alarming. Think of our neighbors to the south and all of the immigrants who come from there to live here. Then think of people like my 80 year old grandmother (sorry, Grandma!) who send chain emails on a daily basis full of fear and often hatred, rejecting and demeaning our immigrant population.

I think that it is part of the human condition to have fear of people who are different than ourselves. We find comfort in what is familiar and when that identity is threatened, we, as humans, respond. It’s just a matter of how we choose to do so.

It’s all the same game; it’s just that France deals with its controversial issues out in the open, rather than over the Internet, and, perhaps, it is their deeply rooted secularism that leads the culture in this direction.

I asked a French friend of mine what his thoughts on the subject were, and he was quick to respond.

“Secularism and religion are at two, opposite ends of the spectrum that can never meet”

To me, French laïcité is contradictory in this sense. Secularism should mean that you are open minded, that you don’t care which religion your neighbor practices, so long as it is not harmful and (s)he does not push it onto you. But ask a Frenchman and much like my friend he may argue that religion has no place in a secular society.


French Identity Crisis

When you think of French stereotypes, what comes to mind?








A man dressed in the French Stereotype

A man dressed up as an exaggerated version of the French stereotype.


Yeah…probably something a little bit like this guy ——————————————————————->


Well, let me tell you something. I have been to France, and while these stereotypes do occur (okay, so maybe the beret is a bit of an exaggeration), they are not usually all found together, on a single human being. And although these may be attributes of some French people, I dare not say that any of them are exclusively French. Let’s face it; people around the world smoke cigarettes and drink wine, so long as it fancies them.

This leads me to the question, if we cannot identify a modern French man  by his red beret and absurd mustache, then how do we determine who is truly French? And what makes somebody French as opposed to something other?

This is a question that I have been wrestling with all semester, and over and over again I have come to the conclusion that you’re of course French if you are a citizen, but furthermore “frenchness,” so to speak, can also mean that you have grown up in France, that you identify with some aspect of the culture, and that it is your home. My opinion, however, is just one of many, and so I feel that it is important to see what others are saying.

We’re in luck! It just so happens that French people, whether consciously or not,  are asking themselves the same question. Furthermore, it is apparent as French current events are plagued with stories of the conflict that arises between different French ethnic identities, in particular between those of European descent and those of North African descent.

A few weeks ago it was the liberal news journal, Charlie Hebdo, to rile up the public about Islam in France with racy charicatures of the prophet Mohammed, while this past week the conservative youth movement, Génération identitaire has stolen the extremism spotlight.

A couple of weeks ago, Génération identitaire posted a nationalistic “Declaration of War” video that calls for a revival of  (European) French Identity, stating things such as,

We are the generation who gets killed for glancing at the wrong person, for refusing someone a cigarette, or for having an ‘attitude’ that annoys someone. We are the generation of ethnic fracture, total failure of coexistence, and forced mixing of the races.”

Honestly, it’s probably best if you just see the video for yourself.


Video put together by the French youth movement, Génération Identitaire

This past Saturday approximately 70 protestors from Génération identitaire acted on their nationalistic sentiments by storming an unfinished mosque in the town of Poitiers, displaying a banner that read “732 Generation Identitaire.” (Arabian Business)

Generation Identitaire Storming mosque in Poitiers, France

Generation Identitaire occupying the roof of a soon-to-be mosque in Poitiers, France

And in case you, too, were concerned about the meaning of the number 732, the group has stated that it refers to the year of 732 in which Charles Martel, a leader in the medieval French army, halted an Arab invasion of Poitiers.

I must say that the video made by Génération identitaire as well as their occupation of the mosque not only struck me as bigoted, but also as bizarre. I was not alone in this conclusion as the following quotes from various French authorities can attest .

“We are thunderstruck … these are people who are stuck in the year 732, and who don’t see that the world has changed. People can live differently than in a mindset of war and conflict.”

–El Haj Boubaker, an imam from Poitiers

“A hateful provocation”

–France’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls

“What they did was scandalous. They basically declared war against Muslims in France. These groups are dangerous because they promote hatred. We have asked the government to prevent them from publishing their intolerable propaganda.”

–Bernadeye Hetier, Co-President of MRAP (Movement Against Racism)

Truth be known, I agree with all of these statements, especially the one about the year 732. In my mind, it seems silly, of all things to write on a banner that will be displayed in images world-wide, the date of a halted arab invasion from hundreds of years ago. If anything, it proves to me that Arab peoples have been in Europe and had contact with the French for centuries and therefore their ancestory in France is not, as some may call it, an “invasion of recent times.”

And along this same line, how is it logical to accuse North Africans of taking over French land when in fact it was actually the French who colonized their land first? For this reason the mindset behind the Génération Identitaire seems rather contradictory to me.

And finally, I believe the words and actions of the Génération Identitaire are insufficient. They claim to support a “true” French identity, however they are not able to pinpoint what exactly French Identity is.  They are only able to show what they believe is not French, and that is Islam. For example I am sure that the Génération Identitaire would not accuse Napoleon Bonaparte of not being French, even though he had Italian ancestry, but then again he was Catholic. What’s up with this!?

Clearly I have a lot of thoughts about this, but I realize that it’s only fair to bring in their perspectives of others, so without further ado, here is what supporters and critics of Génération Identitaire have had to say about the video and mosque occupation:

“These white youths in France have had enough of multiculturalism and third world invasion and are taking a stand for their culture and heritage. Good for them.”

–Author of

“These guys smell wrong to me. It’s probably just because they’re a product of a different culture and a different language, but after watching that video and glancing at their site, I get the feeling that G.I. is some kind of performance-art stunt to expose fascism’s latent support. Their graphic design and production values are too good.”

–Lawful Neutral, a commenter on

“I got goosebumps when I watched this the first time…However…I am struck by how much they sound just like the 68ers they denounce.”

Nicholas Stix, Uncensored 

“Violence against white people is rampant, these anti-racist leftists don’t care about white people it’s simple as that. It’s so sad that whites are doing to this to themselves and future generations. How can we educate them?”

–angrywhitewoman, commenter on

“You can bet once the muzzies achieve high enough numbers this ridiculous display of “tolerance” will be deeply regretted. What they can’t do with guns and bombs they will accomplish with babies . . .”

–C Smythe, commenter on

Though I have tried, condensing what is currently happening in France into clear, concise points seems impossible. I will conclude in saying that there is no real way of telling who is and is not French at face value. It’s just not possible. However, the deep-rooted xenophobia that runs through the veins of traditional French culture makes Muslims an easy scapegoat because women in particular, are marked by what they wear, and easy to identify as being different. No matter what conclusions you make on your own, I think one thing is clear: This issue is relevant because week after week in French media, the national identity is being challenged by incidences such as the mosque occupation of Poitiers.

Calling (almost) all Responses to Hebdo (Warning: Explicit Content)

Leave it to the French Charlie Hebdo to stir the pot during this time of worldwide tension. Just one year ago the weekly journal published a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed which led to their studio being caught on fire. And if you think they’ve learned their lesson, guess again. It seems that Charlie Hebdo, a liberal, French satirical newspaper,  just can’t help but come back for more.

Charlie Hebdo has, metaphorically speaking, added fury to last year’s fire with an even more offensive cartoons this year. When the U.S. ambassador to Lybia and three other Americans were shot in response to the anti-Islamic film, Innocence of Muslims, people near and far were ringing in to voice their opinions about the situation. One such response came from by Charlie Hebdo. It arrived in the form of a series of cartoons, which mocked the Muslim extremists, once again depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a crude and blasphemous manner.

The issue of Charlie Hebdo containing the chariactures of Mohammed was released, conveniently, one week after the angry protests in Lybia of the movie Innocence of Muslims led to the deaths of four Americans.  Charlie Hebdo must have thought the increasingly violent situation was an opportune time to practice their freedom of speech drawing, which is protected in the French constitution.

(Warning: Explicit Content) This YouTube video is a slide show of the various
cartoons issued by Charlie Hebdo along with approximate English translations

If  a reaction was what Charlie Hebdo was seeking by publishing the mockery of Prophet Mohammed, that’s exactly what it got.

Many people called Charlie Hebdo’s actions irresponsible. Why would they publish something that could potentially ignite a violent reaction from those in French. Since France has the highest population of any western European country, the journal seems to be asking for trouble. And with violence already breaking out after the killings in Lybia, why would they do something that could potentially provoke more violence?

The French government was actually so fearful of violence that they shut down 20 French Embassies during the Islamic day of prayer as a preventative measure and had the Charlie Hebdo property  guarded by police.

One American had his own opinion about why the police stepped in. “THE MOVE on the part of French officials to pre-emptively outlaw demonstrations against such racist caricatures shows that the key issues here have nothing to do with free speech or a defense of enlightenment values against reactionary extremism–and everything to do with the increasing prevalence of racism and Islamophobia, in France as well as in Europe more generally.”

-American Jonah Birch of

Still yet, other French citizens sang the praises of Charlie Hebdo for fearlessly practicing the right to of freedom of expression.

Some cartoon artists even responded with their own drawing to counter those of Charlie Hebdo.


This cartoon, which I found from a link in a tweet about Hebdo, says on top, “After the Charlie Hebdo fuss, the salafis are boiling.” The quote bubble reads, ” We also want to feel!”

A cartoon that criticizes that “Freedom of Speech” is being used in France as a cover up for Islamophobia.

This cartoon, also a response to Hebdo’s depictions of Mohammed shows religious leaders of Judaism, Christianity and Islam saying, “We must veil Hebdo!”















Regardless of the numerous opinions presented on the subject, I noticed that I was actually unable to find the response of the group that I was looking for: French, Muslims. And then I got to thinking, isn’t it ironic that the free speech debate sparked by Charlie Hebdo is summoning the opinions of multiple French perspectives in the media, but excluding those in the potentially offended party? In fact, the only media reporting that I could find that interviewed muslims in France about their reactions to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons was done by a non-French news source and thus the language was incomprehensible to me.

I personally felt very irritated about the lack of Muslim voice in French reports over the Charlie Hebdo conflict. From an outsider’s perspective it just seems so blatantly obvious to me that the group of people whose opinion we should be seeking is the group that is being insulted. Is it that Muslims in France are denied a voice, or are they choosing not to respond?

While I was unable to dig up any responses from the muslim community in France, there was a global response by Muslims that perhaps reflects the attitude of some of the Muslim population in France. On twitter a hash tag was started,  #MuslimRage, as a platform for Muslims to speak out about what actually makes them mad, in a humorous manner. This non-violent reaction by Muslims is the way in which mainstream Islam is peacefully standing up, both against Islamophobia and religious extremism.

I will leave you now, with some of those tweets:


  • “I’m having such a good hair day. No one even knows.#MuslimRage” — Hend (retweeted 2900 times).
  • Lost your kid Jihad at the airport. Can’t yell for him.#MuslimRage — Leila (retweeted 1000 times).
  • “When you realize that if you have a 5 o’clock shadow it can be deemed a security threat.” — Taufiq Rahim.
  • #muslimrage when you order halal chicken and find out the chef cooked it in alcohol!” — Hassan Sultan.
  • “You go to a football watch party and all these is to eat is pepperoni pizza and beer battered chicken wings#MuslimRage” — Waliya.
  • “i dont feel any rage….does that mean i am not muslim?#someonegetmeadrink #MuslimRage ” — Ramah Kudaimi.


Relevant Links:

Muslim Rage Explodes on Twitter:

The Charlie Hebdo Affair: :Laughing at Blasphemy:

U.S. Ambassador Killed:



Suburban-French Hip-Hop?

Banlieue, the word seems harmless enough, even pretty, when pronounced. And when looked up in a French-English dictionary it translates most commonly as “suburb.”

Into my head images pop up instantaneously of cookie cutter houses with finely manicured lawns, cars in the driveways, fences securing dogs, and the occasional kid outside hula-hooping while their younger sibling practices writing their name in sidewalk chalk.

But what if I told you that French banlieues do not look quite the same as American suburbs. Imagine this picture instead: tightly scrunched, low income  apartment buildings, run-down government housing, riddled with graffiti, violence, and the more than occasional drug deal.

A photo of a government housing in a crowded, Fench banlieue


I will be the first to admit that the term “suburb” in English does not bring me an overwhelming sense of joy, however, I do not associate it with poor living conditions and social unrest.In fact I think of quite the opposite.  So what are banlieues, really, if they are not truly suburbs? It seems that they are more or less ghettos, or areas where North African immigrants are shuttled so as not to disrupt the pristine image of the of French cities. Left on the margins, they are seldom thought of.

Colombe Brossel, a French activist for educational reform who keeps a blog spoke about her discontent for how the balieues are so often ignored in politics. She said that during this past election the word balnlieue diappeared from the French vocabulary altogether and that it “seemed to have become a dirty word that should be avoided when speaking.” She both criticizes and calls to attention the fact that nobody is willing to deal with the banlieues, even though they are in need of urgent attetntion.

A photo that I took from the lookout point described in the video of Lyon, France.


Likewise in this video, a man in Lyon points out that on the map of the city, shown at a tourist point that looks over the sprawling urbanization, the banlieues are completely left out from being labeled, even though they are clearly visible from the lookout point.



While there are few people living outside of the banlieues speaking up about the conditions inside, voices from within the social confines of the benlieue not only speak about their lives, they rap about them. Paradoxically enough while politicians may be trying to muffle the cries of immigrant populations in banlieues, some of the most famous French hip-hop and rap artists have risen to both fame and popularity by reciting lyrics about the realities of their lives.

Hip-hop artists in France are most often find their roots in the Moroccan or Algerian working class population. They see their work as a means of reporting about the seldom-mentioned slums that they once called home growing up, as a way of getting their perspective out to the rest of the francophone world, since the French media often chooses to ignore them.

Since their beginnings, French hip-hop  and rap have been highly controversial. From its rapid popularization in the 1990s it has been both loved by French youth and protested against by French adults. Due to its often  graphic content, the music gets blamed for encouraging violent behavior.

L’espoir des Favelas, the song title of the popular French hip-hop artists of Algerian descent, Rim’K, translates to something like, hope for the slums. In his lyrics Rim’K speaks about the conditions of French Banlieues. He does not refrain from using graphic language or profanities, and while the picture he paints of the slums is not attractive, he does also pose hope that with knowledge and education, one can break free from the cycle of crime in which they were born.

Hip-hop artist, Rim’K, a member of the group Maghreb United


A blogger from NationPresse, a blog which supports the conservative, French right-wing, does not like Rim’K, not even a single bit. He says in his post that Rim’K’s music is “racism (against whites) expressed freely on the radio in rap songs that dome intellectuals dare to call ‘music’ or ‘culture.'”

His blog post struck me as funny. How can somebody from the position of white, male privilege, write a racist blog post about the so-called racism that he feels is coming from a French-African, a group notoriously  and often brutally discriminated against in French history? How can you accuse someone of being racist, when you yourself are also racist? While perhaps I could agree  with the author, that violence is never a good answer and I do not really appreciate listening to violence in songs, I found his post to be highly contradictory considering that in his posts, he describes himself as favoring militant action.

Something about the French hip-hop scene seems eerily similar to the American hip-hop culture. I wonder, since hip-hop appeals first and primarily to youth, is it creating a future in which people will be more aware of the social disparities that exist in banlieues and will therefore more inclined to take action? Or, are the banlieues being glamorized in their minds, while creating even more tension and amubition for French people to call those living in the banlieues violent and dangerous?

In my opinion, the fact that music has been a platform for a marginalized group of people to share their story is pretty exciting. It is simply my hope that as hip hop and rap artists from banlieues rise to fame, that they would give back to the communities that they came from and act as a positive voice of change.

Writing this post made me reflect on the complicated history of North Africans living in France and this quote from a blogger who writes about the common misconceptions of Islam wrote this about France, which I found to be thoughtful enough to share.

“If the challenge of ‘integrating’ French Muslims appears to be a throwback to the old colonial paradox (to ‘civilize those unable to be civilized’), it is only because people have made it that way themselves by defining France’s ‘integration’ problem as a question of culture and religion rather than social immobility, housing policy and educational inequality. Discussions of the banlieues themselves can also get transformed into complaints about culture (e.g., “speaking in slang”, wearing hats backwards and the like). Until the real issues are addressed, and until we stop framing the discourse on French Muslims as a cosmic clash of religion and secularism, things will only get worse. Perhaps, in time, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”



Priority Security Zones in France lead to increased ethnic conflict

The night between August 13th and 14th was neither quiet nor peaceful for the residents of Amiens, a town located just north or Paris, France. Riots broke out in the streets, reportedly started by a group of approximately 100 youth of North African origin. The violence that erupted in the area left dozens of cars torched, two buildings burnt and ransacked, and 16 injured police officers. This resulted in an estimated 1.23 million US dollars in damage.


The aggressive response of youth in Amiens toward police has been speculatively related to the recent designation of Amiens as one of 15 Priority Security Zones (ZSP) in France, areas in which crime rates are the highest. These so-called “no-go” zones are described as Muslim dominated areas of immigrant populations that are largely off-limits to non-Muslims. French law enforcement hopes to regain its authority and make things safer in these closed off neighborhoods by increasing its presence within them. According to the French government, there are 751 of these no-go zones that have popped up all over in areas of French cities.


As you can imagine, some think that the policy to increase security in these areas is a good idea and that stricter laws should be enforced, while others strongly disagree with this attitude toward the situation. Nonetheless, this is a topic of controversy in France and most people have an opinion about it, especially in light of the recent election of socialist party president, Francois Hollande, who identified Amiens as a Priority Security Zone.


VENITISM says, “The city is infamous for high unemployment, racial tension, and brutal police force” and believes that Hollande’s government is not equipped to handle the current climate of violence and that it would best be handled by the right-wing politician, Marine LePen, who is known for her French nationalism and “continues to fight against the subversion of the country at the hands of Muslims.” VENITISM critiques Hollande as being too hesitant with his actions in the ZSPs despite his pledge to be tough.


Conversely, Walter Russell Mead of Via Meadia calls into question the way in which the French government has been both vague about what exactly broke out in Amiens, and who was involved. His criticism is that the blame is being both ambiguously and unfairly placed on the shoulders of Muslim, North African immigrant youth as a sort of cop-out to the many social issues taking place in France right now. “If the ‘community’ happened to be of North African origin, that would not make us think that all immigrants in France of Muslim faith and North African origin share these attitudes. We have met far too many thoughtful, educated, well-integrated French citizens with this background to smear a whole ethnicity with the actions of some.”


On one hand, I see the need for the French government to pay attention to no-go zones with increased police presence in order to keep peace and protect the safety of citizens. Whenever there is an environment conducive to crime and destructive riots that injure people their property, it should be investigated.  On the other hand, I also disagree with the way in which Priority Security Zones have been pigeon holed as “Muslim,”  “immigrant,” and “North African,”  implying that all people that fit into these categories are  violent, dangerous and inferior to “French” citizens and thus require increased surveillance and fewer social freedoms.  The story of Amiens has been told from the side of the French government and media only, however it would be valuable to hear the story of the riot told by those youth who were actually involved, in order to even out the bias and understand the conflict better.


Personally, I would like to see the investigation of  no-go zones extend beyond the surface description of what is happening in order to figure out why it is happening. Is it a strong sense of French nationalism and perhaps even racism that drives clumps of North African immigrant populations into segregated communities, giving rise to hostile relations? Or, could is be the opposite, a North African nationalism that drives the segregation and violence? Or, more likely, is it a combination of nationalism on both ends? Furthermore, how does the complicated history of France and North Africa still affecting relations today? And is there a solution for moving past these social conflicts, without denying citizens their rights to freely express themselves both religiously and culturally? It seems in this case, that there is much more going on than meets the eye.