The 2004 law banning “conspicuous” religious symbols (read, headscarves) in French public schools cast France as an intolerant and radically secular state hostile to the manifestation of difference, especially Muslim difference, in the public sphere. During debates about the new law, a clear distinction was drawn between French republicanism and an “Anglo-Saxon” multiculturalism decried by many French as a sure path to national disintegration. President Jacques Chirac even declared that France “would lose her soul” if she went the way of an Anglo-American pluralism that recognizes and accepts internal difference. Despite this rhetoric, however, the French state has simultaneously undertaken a very public campaign to recognize the Muslims of France as equal citizens and to give them a place “at the table of the Republic.”

Part of this process was the creation in May 2003 of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), a national elected body, to serve as an official interlocutor with the state in the regulation of Islamic worship and public ritual practices like the mass slaughtering of sheep during Aïd el Kebir, the allocation of public cemetery space facing Mecca, the garnering of municipal permits to construct mosques and the accreditation of imams. Both the state and French Muslims stood to gain from the council. The creation of the CFCM constituted part of the state’s ongoing effort to institutionalize, monitor and domesticate Islam, an effort begun more than a decade earlier with state-sponsored initiatives — like the writing of a “Muslim Charter” and the regulation of halal certification — intended to create an “Islam of France.” For their part, many Muslims considered the CFCM an opportunity to legitimize and normalize the presence of Islam in France.

Only two years later, the future of the CFCM is already in jeopardy. On January 4, 2005, Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and a practicing Muslim, resigned from the CFCM’s 16-member executive board. In her letter of resignation (made public a day earlier), Bouzar lamented that she had waited patiently for a “profound” discussion of what it means to be a Muslim in a secular society and what French Islam (islam de France) would look like, only to find to her consternation that the CFCM was more interested in jockeying for political power. Bouzar’s resignation came on the heels of major political infighting between the different federations that comprise the CFCM, forcing elections that had been scheduled for April 2005 to be put off until June, and even possibly until the next year. Her disillusionment may seem misplaced: after all, rather than debating doctrinal or theological matters, the stated function of the CFCM is to regulate and ameliorate the conditions of Muslim worship. Nonetheless, Bouzar’s resignation points to inherent tensions and unresolved questions regarding the CFCM. Is the function of the CFCM theological, bureaucratic or representative? What or who (Islam or Muslims) does the CFCM represent?

In Search of an Islamic Interlocutor

The establishment of the CFCM is partly grounded in French fears about the rise of political Islam and Islamist terrorism, in particular the possibility that Algeria’s civil war might cross the Mediterranean Sea into France. The idea to create a representative council for Islam first emerged in the late 1980s under Pierre Joxe, then minister of the interior and, therefore, minister of faiths (cultes). In 1989, the same year as the first “headscarves affair,” [1] he created the Working Council on Islam in France (CORIF), to which he appointed six well-known imams, who in turn appointed another nine members. All members were chosen to ensure regional and ethno-national diversity. The CORIF met a few dozen times until 1992 at Joxe’s behest, and at the offices of the Interior Ministry.

In the mid-1990s, at the height of the Algerian civil war, the state pursued the establishment of a Muslim council with more urgency. When Charles Pasqua became interior minister in 1993, he drew a deliberate distinction between “foreign Islam” (islam étranger) and “French Islam” (islam de France), enacting a series of measures — including the writing of a Muslim Charter — that he felt would entrench a domestic and domesticated Islam on French soil, with the Algerian Grand Mosque of Paris as its cornerstone. After a change in government in 1996, Jean-Pierre Chevénement of the Socialist Party was installed as interior minister. Chevénement made a concerted effort to install what he considered a more “representative” consultation committee, widening his focus beyond the Grand Mosque of Paris to include the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF), which controls a number of mosques across France, and the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF), thought to best represent “the Moroccan sensibility,” as well as the pietist Tabligh movement and one of the major Turkish Muslim organizations. In addition to these large federations, Chevénement brought in a number of influential “grand” mosques. He also chose six individuals as “qualified personalities” to represent a more “modernist” Islam.

Drawing on Pasqua’s idea of a Muslim charter, the ministry�s Bureau of Faiths formulated a text to be signed by the “invitees to the table of the Republic,” as Chevénement had put it during his inaugural address to the consultation committee. A number of “invitees” balked, and Chevénement was roundly criticized for proposing what seemed to be a colonially inspired “test of allegiance” for Muslims in France, many of whom were already citizens of the republic. In the face of such criticism, Chevénement soon withdrew the text, and on January 28, 2000, made the consultation committee official, renaming it “Istichara,” an Arabic word that means dialogue between two parties — in this instance, one assumes, between Muslims and the state. In consultation with Chevénement, the Istichara agreed that a national elected Islamic council was necessary and recommended a procedure for its establishment. The members decided that Muslim places of worship would be represented by delegates, with the number of delegates proportional to the size of the place of worship. After a Ministry of the Interior census of France’s Muslim places of worship, 992 of them were accorded delegates — about 4,000 in all — to vote for the general assembly of what was to become the French Council of the Muslim Faith.

By this time, the government had changed again, and in May 2002, Nicolas Sarkozy, a Rudolph Giuliani-esque figure and the self-proclaimed “chief cop” of France, had become interior minister under the center-right Raffarin government. Sarkozy made the election of the CFCM one of his major goals as minister. He convened the main players of Chevénement’s consultation committee for two days in December 2002, at the end of which he emerged triumphant, declaring that a working agreement had been reached and that elections would soon be held for the CFCM and its 25 regional counterparts. Sarkozy then chose the CFCM’s 16-member executive board before any elections were held. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, was appointed president for the following two years, while the UOIF and FNMF were given the two vice presidencies. On April 6 and 13, 2003, elections for the CFCM and the regional councils were held. On April 13, the results of the elections were made official: the FNMF emerged victorious, with the UOIF a close (and unexpected) second. The Grand Mosque of Paris came in a distant third, making Sarkozy’s appointment of Boubakeur to the CFCM presidency somewhat awkward.

During preparations for new elections, Boubakeur, predicting the electoral annihilation of his federation, announced in September 2004 that the Grand Mosque and its satellite mosques would not participate in the new elections unless the electoral process was amended, and criteria other than mosque size were taken into consideration, criteria (such as the presence of accredited imams and the “quality of services” offered to the faithful) that would clearly favor Boubakeur�s organization. The UOIF and the FNMF refused, accusing Boubakeur of “undemocratic” tactics. Faced with the CFCM�s implosion, the state stepped in. Dominique de Villepin, the current interior minister, called a series of emergency meetings throughout the fall of 2004 to try to convince the main players to find a solution amenable to all. Elections were pushed back to June 2005, although the FNMF recently called for another postponement.

“At the Table of the Republic”

Non-French readers may be astonished by the level of state involvement in the creation and maintenance of the CFCM, but it is in keeping with the legal and political framework of laïcité (state secularism). Despite a 1905 law that officially separated church and state, guaranteeing freedom of worship and the state’s neutrality in religious matters, the state maintained relations with the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish institutions that had served as the state’s “privileged interlocutors” in matters of religion since Napoleon. The Council of Bishops, Protestant Federation and Central Consistory represent their respective faiths to the state and serve as the state’s consultants in the management of religious life, such as the regulation of the chaplain system in prisons and hospitals and the organization of public rituals and holidays. Thus, for example, the justice minister chooses Catholic, Protestant and Jewish “chaplains” for prisons, in consultation with the “competent religious authorities.” The state also subsidizes religious schools “under contract” with the state and pays for the upkeep of religious edifices built before 1905. Since the majority of Muslims arrived in metropolitan France after 1905, Islam did not profit until very recently from the institutional benefits of state recognition. This situation, and especially the lack of a representative body for Islam, was considered to be at odds with the guarantee of religious liberty and state neutrality under the legal framework of laïcité , prompting calls to properly “recognize” and “represent” Islam — France’s “second religion” — and thereby “include” Muslims in the republic on an equal basis with other faiths. This effort culminated in the state’s creation of the CFCM, strengthening the state-centered paradigm of laïcité  by creating a Muslim interlocutor for the state.

Notwithstanding its place within the framework of laïcité, the CFCM is also the expression of other forms of state recognition. As critics have pointed out, the state’s contemporary management of Islam through the creation of the CFCM echoes older, colonial forms of governance. In Algeria, for example, the French colonial administration centralized and bureaucratized the indigenous Islamic justice system, bringing previously autonomous judges (qadis) and legal scholars (ulema) under the purview of the state. The establishment of the CFCM also draws on colonial and contemporary forms of recognition and organization based on ethnicized notions of community and difference. After all, despite public rhetoric that rejects any official recognition of groups or group identity, France has a colonial history of organizing and governing indigenous communities through ethnic and racial categories. In the more recent past, the republic has regulated and managed non-white immigration according to ethnic and racial criteria. The use of ethnic quotas in housing allocation, for example, was a widespread practice in the 1970s. Moreover, France has instituted a number of policies in the past few decades that seemingly recognize ethnic and racial particularity in distributing political and financial resources to disadvantaged communities.

The creation of the CFCM also draws on a new paradigm advocating the recognition and tolerance of religious and cultural difference and its inclusion in the republic. The same presidential commission that recommended banning �conspicuous� religious symbols in public schools also recommended designating Aïd el Kebir and Yom Kippur as national school holidays, arguing that it was necessary to realize that “the French spiritual landscape has changed” and that making these two additional holy days into holidays would mark the Republic’s “respect for the plurality of spiritual opinions.” [2] Politicians on the left and right increasingly speak of the need for tolerance, diversity and the inclusion of different religious and cultural communities “especially the Muslim community” — “at the table of the Republic.” In a May 2003 speech to the National Assembly, Nicolas Sarkozy asserted that “there cannot be two categories of citizens: those who can live their faith and the others, the Muslims.” The creation of a representative body for Islam has thus come to be regarded as the full extension of citizenship rights to Muslims in France and an essential element of their inclusion in the Republic.

Who Is a Muslim?

The position of the CFCM at the intersection of an ethnicized politics of difference, which recognizes communities, and the republican paradigm of laïcité, which recognizes religions, has raised a number of questions regarding what (or who) the CFCM represents and what its function is and should be. Does the CFCM represent individual Muslims, the “Muslim community” or Islam in France? What constitutes the “Muslim community” and who counts as a Muslim? Is “Muslim” a religious/theological category or a cultural/demographic one?

In October 2002, in one of his first addresses to the Istichara formed under Chevénement, Sarkozy emphasized that the CFCM-to-be “concerns the Muslim faith (le culte musulman) and not Muslim culture (la culture musulmane)… and [is] even less the representation of the French Muslim community.” At the same time, Sarkozy and other Interior Ministry officials, the press and many Muslims themselves often speak of the CFCM as the representative body for “the Muslim community” (la communauté musulmane). In a Europe 1 radio interview on April 15, 2003, immediately after the election of the CFCM, Sarkozy and journalist J. P. Elkabbach alternated among numerous appellations. Elkabbach noted that “the practicing Muslims (les musulmans pratiquants) of France have at last elected …their council of faith.” Sarkozy agreed that “finally there is an organ that represents the Muslims (les musulmans) in all their diversity.” “Religious Muslims (les musulmans religieux),” Elkabbach chimed in. “The Muslim faith (le culte musulman),” Sarkozy replied. Sarkozy has also repeated numerous times that “the five million Muslims in France have finally become full citizens.” Such a figure seems to represent “Muslim” as a cultural or ethnic category of “origin,” since numerous polls have shown that only 10 – 30 percent of the five million people counted as Muslims consider themselves “practicing.” Yet the government’s decision to organize elections for the CFCM around mosques links a form of practice — mosque attendance — to the right to a voice in the election, and therefore to what constitutes a “Muslim” for the purposes of the CFCM.

The 2003 election itself was also a major source of contention over whether the CFCM was the representative of the Muslim faith or of Muslims. The election of the CFCM was heavily criticized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike for being undemocratic (because indirect, and because delegates were chosen by mosques) and, therefore, unrepresentative. But rather than invoking a religious tradition, these critics’ notion of democratic representation invokes a population to be represented, with concomitant forms of democratic legitimacy, authority and due process quite different from the bases for religious legitimacy and authority. Making things even more complicated were a number of “secular” (laïc) Muslims who criticized the presence of the “fundamentalist” UOIF in the CFCM and claimed to represent “the silent majority” of Muslims in France. Thus were formed a number of short-lived secular representative bodies, such as the French Council of Secular Muslims. But as the sociologist Vincent Geisser pointed out in an interview with Le Monde, in creating the CFCM, the interior minister limited the Muslim community to believing and practicing Muslims. When an association claims to represent secular Islam (l’islam laïque), the basic unit of representation is no longer the practicing Muslim but anyone and everyone of Arabo-Muslim origin. [3]

The CFCM’s defenders, including members of the government, maintained that democratic representativeness was in fact not the issue, since the council represented not Muslims but Islam. Yet the structure of the CFCM is quite different from that of other religious representative institutions, such as the Catholic Council of Bishops and the Jewish Central Consistory and Grand Rabbinate, whose respective members are neither popularly elected nor chosen by the state but accede to their positions through the traditional channels of authority and hierarchy within their faiths. In contrast, the CFCM is comprised for the most part not of religious authorities but of large federations and associations. Neither the president nor the vice presidents of the CFCM are formally trained religious scholars. Although few doubt the piety of Mohamed Bechari, the president of the FNMF, and Fouad Alaoui, the secretary-general of the UOIF, their qualification for leadership positions in the CFCM stems from their experience running the two largest Muslim federations in France. Moreover, while the Central Consistory represents and manages the Jewish faith (le culte juif) and the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) represents the Jewish community (la communauté juive), such a distinction is collapsed in a CFCM expected to encompass doctrinal, bureaucratic and community-relations functions. The government has called upon the CFCM to give a doctrinal opinion on whether or not the hijab (headscarf) is a religious obligation for Muslim women as part of its efforts to enact the headscarf ban. It has asked the CFCM to organize the slaughter of thousands of sheep for Aïd el Kebir. It has also called on the CFCM to consider issues like the conflict in Israel-Palestine, Islamist terrorism and inner-city violence — all of which are apparently, according to a Bureau of Faiths official, “questions related to Islam, even though Muslim worship is not directly concerned.” [4]

This confusion regarding the function of the CFCM, and who or what it is supposed to represent, arises in part from an increasingly ethnicized understanding of Islam. In many ways, “Muslim” has replaced “Arab,” “Maghrebi” and “immigrant” — all ethnicized identities in their own time. A perfect example of this is Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent call for a “Muslim prefect” as part of his campaign for affirmative action policies (discrimination positive). Although Sarkozy was criticized for seeming to advocate the entry of religious affiliation into the public sphere, thereby contravening one of the principles of the Republic, his use of “Muslim” in this instance is part of an ethnicized logic of difference and recognition rather than an invocation of a properly religious category. Sarkozy justified his remark about a Muslim prefect by stressing that “the Muslims of France are also capable of producing high functionaries, researchers, doctors and teachers” and thus should be supported in this goal. [5] He was clearly not referring to practicing Muslims, but rather to the “five million Muslims” he often invokes — in other words, to Muslims as an ethnicized minority community.

Is There an “Islam of France”?

As much as the state’s creation of the CFCM was undertaken to properly recognize and include a significant minority community and “the second religion” of France, it was also part of the state’s effort to construct and monitor a domestic, and domesticated, form of Islam, or an “Islam of France” (islam de France). By creating a Muslim representative body in dialogue with the French state, the republic explicitly attempted to cut the links between Muslim immigrants and their countries of origin, bringing Islam in France under the purview of the French state rather than that of “foreign powers.” In keeping with this effort to extricate “French” Islam from “foreign” influences, the state has made the regulation of imams one of its and the CFCM�s major concerns, and has tried (with some success) to deport imams accused of preaching “fundamentalist” Islam. Nicolas Sarkozy has called for imams to be trained in France, stating on numerous occasions that French Muslims “should not have to depend on foreign countries to obtain imams who do not speak a word of French.” This call for an “Islam of France” has been echoed by a number of Muslims as well, especially those born and raised in France. For example, the Collective of French Muslims, a group of second-generation Muslims close to the Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, identify themselves as “French of Muslim faith” (français de confession musulmane), signifying an equal commitment to their faith and to their Frenchness. Moreover, both the UOIF and the Collective have actively sought to “adapt” the Islamic tradition to the French context through ijtihad (independent reasoning) and the development of a European fiqh (jurisprudence).

Yet attempts to engender an “Islam of France” have been undermined by the state’s own approach in dealing with Islam, as well as by the structure of the CFCM. In 2003, during debates about the proposed law banning conspicuous religious symbols from public schools, Sarkozy met in Egypt with the grand sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar University and obtained a fatwa (religious edict) allowing that Islamic headscarves were not obligatory if prohibited by a national law. In doing so, Sarkozy effectively circumvented the recently created CFCM’s role as “privileged interlocutor” in the management of Islam in France. Sarkozy also publicly announced that he had discussed the formation of the CFCM with the ambassadors of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey, all of whom had expressed their hope for the council’s success. The state has also consistently chosen to work on a national, regional and municipal level with associations affiliated with the consulates of Morocco, Algeria and Turkey, rather than with associations linked to transnationally oriented federations like the UOIF, the Tabligh wa Dawa and Muslim Presence (an organization founded by Tariq Ramadan). Likewise, the state has time and again designated the Grand Mosque of Paris as the privileged representative of Islam in France, in spite of the fact that the mosque’s rector is remunerated by the Algerian government (hence the widespread feeling among many French Muslims that Dalil Boubakeur is a mouthpiece for the Algerian state). Not surprisingly, the Grand Mosque often clashes with the FNMF, which is supported by Morocco and was formed in part as a counterweight to Algerian dominance of the French Islamic landscape. This kind of nationally inspired political infighting erupted recently when Boubakeur vigorously protested a meeting in Qatar between Mohamed Bechari, head of the FNMF and vice president of the CFCM, and Abassi Madani, head of the Islamic Salvation Front, the now defunct Algerian Islamist party.

The division of Islam in France along national lines is not restricted to North African Islam; the other federations that comprise the CFCM include the Turkish DITIB and Milli Gorüs, and the French Federation of African, Comorian and Antillean Associations. Nor is this division along ethno-national lines all that surprising, given that until the 1990s, the practice of Islam in France largely concerned immigrants and foreign students. Many of the aforementioned organizations were born out of social welfare associations (amicales) run by labor-exporting countries like Algeria, Morocco and Turkey, who used these associations as a way to aid their respective emigrant workers as well as to maintain a certain amount of influence over them in France. Even the UOIF, which positions itself against these “national” tendencies and claims to represent “French” Islam, is led by Muslim men who came to France as foreign students from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

In such an institutional landscape, Islamic associations run by second- and third-generation Muslims born and/or raised in France have found it hard to gain acceptance by the French state as legitimate interlocutors. Groups like the Collective of French Muslims, as well as other more local associations, complain that the CFCM, supposed to embody the establishment of an “Islam of France,” is in fact unrepresentative of the millions of French citizens of Muslim faith (français de confession musulmane) whose cultural affinities lie with France rather than with North Africa or Turkey. They argue that the CFCM, and the ethno-national associational structure on which it is built, is ultimately unconcerned about the needs of young French Muslims, who are less interested in waging proxy battles between “home country” states and more interested in constructing a viable way of life as both fully Muslim and fully French. Dounia Bouzar — herself a French-born Muslim and an anthropologist of second- and third-generation Muslim youth — signaled this discontent in her letter of resignation, writing: “I have no reason to remain a member of this body on “French Islam,” where it is never a question of Muslims born in France.” Her resignation thereby serves notice to the state and to the CFCM not only that unanswered questions remain about the CFCM’s function, but also that an unresolved generational gap divides the “Muslim community” from within. If the state is to include French Muslims at the “table of the Republic” in its effort to recognize and incorporate cultural and religious difference, Bouzar suggests, then it must take into account the needs of those citizens who have already been sitting, unheard, at the Republic’s table all their lives. In its insistence on managing Islam as a foreign phenomenon even as it attempts to institutionalize an “Islam of France,” the state has ironically overlooked the most likely vector of a truly French Islam: French-born Muslims themselves.



[1] The first “headscarves affair” (l’affaire du foulard islamique) occurred in 1989 when three Muslim schoolgirls of Moroccan descent refused to remove their headscarves in class, setting off a firestorm of debate among intellectuals and politicians, many of whom saw the case as a national crisis threatening the public school system and the secular identity of the Republic.

[2] Laïcité et République: Commission preside par Bernard Stasi (Paris: La Documentation Fran�aise, 2004), p. 142. Although Jacques Chirac took up the Stasi Commission’s recommendation for a new law formally banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, he declined their recommendation regarding Aïd el Kebir and Yom Kippur. The recommendation had been heavily criticized by a number of intellectuals and politicians, who saw it as a crude bargaining chip intended to placate Muslims so they would accept the veil ban. The recommendation also came at a politically delicate time, since the government had recently voted to rescind the Monday after the Pentecost as a public holiday in order to pay for health care reforms for the elderly (a much heralded measure that came on the heels of the August 2003 heat wave that killed 15,000 people in France, most of them elderly).

[3] Le Monde, May 21, 2003.

[4] Hervé Terrel, “L’État et la creation du Conseil français du culte musulman” in Cités (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004), p. 91.

[5] Le Monde, December 1, 2003.


How to cite this article:

Mayanthi Fernando "The Republic’s “Second Religion”," Middle East Report 235 (Summer 2005).

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