Academic Projects

Summary of French Grievances Toward Algerian Muslims

December 11, 2019

In recounting the grievances the French government and population alike have committed towards Muslims who have long attempted to achieve integration into the mainstream French community without much success, no population understands the struggle better than Muslim Algerians. 

This fight for acceptance has been waged on social, political and economic fronts as Muslims have repeatedly contributed to French prosperity in various ways, yet are still seen as an open sore on our society. Pundits can blame external forces such as German propaganda in an effort to sway Muslims to join the central powers in the Great War, the lack of understanding of a foreign religion like Islam, or even the simple absence of a universal definition of a Muslim and what it means to be one. However, none of these reasons, justified or not, do not change the core problem at hand: Muslims have strengthened our country, they should not be seen as a threat to our culture, and the prevailing European anxieties towards Muslims should not shape your own perception of a group that only seeks acceptance. In this opinion piece, I hope to detail the fundamental history leading up to the Great War, the positive role Muslims have played in French history, and the response from the government and general public alike in these last twenty years since, in an effort to convince you, the reader, that Muslims deserve a permanent place in our society and should be appreciated for it.

To begin, I feel it important to note that I myself am French, through and through, and while we may not share the same views towards Muslims, it does not diminish my own claim to “French-ness.” While European countries have, for the most part, held anxieties towards those who practice Islam, the same cannot be said for Islamic countries towards Europeans. Even after 18th and 19th century conquests by the Ottoman Empire, it extended dhimmis to its conquered subjects that allowed Christians and Jews to retain their religion at a tax similar to those also paid by Muslims subjects, making them equal under laws of property, contract and obligation. However, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the 1878 Treaty of Berlin that prompted widespread forced migration of Muslims into European countries, the belief that Islam was incompatible with European citizenship ran rampant.

In regard to France’s participation in this hysteria, the government established the Code de l’indigénat, which dictated legal codes for all “non-French citizens.” This code not only requires that a Muslim could only become French if they renounced Islam, but also entails forced labor and even allows “true French citizens” to enact punishment on those they see in violation. While it might shock some that this policy was passed to begin with, what is more surprising is that this code is still in place even today! I would be remiss not to mention that the Code de l’indigénat also included a separate court system for Muslims. While this may seem like a positive for their rights in France, the government has bureaucratized the Sharia court system by replacing traditional chiefs with those who would be loyal and dependent upon the French, and so it is difficult to measure exactly how much this separate court system has helped.

This code provides a good foundation for our current dynamics in France, however it is even better understood by examining the Great War, when the contribution of Muslims to France becomes its most apparent, and even more so its aftermath, which highlights the disregard our government and population as a whole has shown toward these Muslims. Take for example, one war veteran I have talked to named, Addi, whose story can help comprehend that of many Muslims currently living in France.

He can trace his family history back almost 300 years, when his great, great grandfather, who despite having converted to Catholicism, was expelled from Spain in 1612. He soon settled in Algeria where he started a family and they would remain there through the years of Ottoman rule, through the Barbary wars and even through the years of French colonization of the territory, beginning in 1830. It was later during this period, when Addi’s father had his land taken to be controlled by French colonists and then moved to the rural areas that had maintained a traditional Muslim community. At this time during the late 19th century, Addi was born; and despite Algeria’s status as a part of the French Republic, as a Muslim, Addi would only ever be considered a French subject, but never a French citizen.

The late 19th century established notable changes that would define the Muslim experience under French-controlled Algeria in the next century. A clash of cultures between French-Christian settlers in Algeria and the native Muslim population created an arrogant and imperialistic European attitude that it would be necessary for France to “de-Arabize” Algeria. This psychology coincided with the aforementioned Code de l’indigénat and its enactment in 1881 served as the beginning of what Algerians would experience as a cleansing of their Islamic culture. An 1884 decree finally allowed “qualified” Muslims to vote on their own representatives on the Algerian councils, however the qualifications had such a high bar that less than just 2% of the Algerian-Muslim population met the standard. This system created a class of urban Muslim elites, who backed by the support of French officials, expanded their influence throughout the 1890s, which in turn, ensured Muslim compliance with military conscription laws that were introduced in the following decade.

This is where our story of Abbi picks back up. At the turn of the century, the discrimination the French officials in Algeria continued to show towards Muslims increased tensions between the two groups. Uprisings sparked fear of a full-scale Algerian rebellion and in retaliation, France established Native Control Courts, further damaging this relationship. By 1909, these conflicts soon realized the need for policy reform and this movement would be led by a group named the Young Algerians, a select class of youth educated on French cultural orientation. Abbi, like many of the other Young Algerians, had grown up witnessing the injustices Muslims experienced at the hand of their French colonizers and saw the path to gaining acceptance through an assimilationist ideology. He felt that the fundamental division among their groups was a misunderstanding of cultural aspects of Islam; and much to the chagrin of his father and other traditional Muslims, Abbi and other Young Algerians sought this assimilation by emulating European dress and proclaiming their intent to conform to their culture. Accordingly, when the Great War broke out in 1914, Abbi can still remember the excitement of having an infallible opportunity towards acceptance by the French: by fighting for France, they could show their loyalty, sacrifice and service, which would influence their colonizers to not only recognize their significance, but to also integrate Muslims into French society.

While Algeria was asked to contribute more manpower than any other of the French North African colonies, the story of Abbi and his motivations for fighting in the Great War is not the only one of Muslim contribution. On an individual scale, Muslim volunteers from Tunisia and Morocco also came forward with similar assimilation hopes, however many more were also drafted through military conscription. The larger point here is that a considerable amount of Muslims fought on behalf of France in the Great War, roughly estimated to be 500,000. Of this number, around 170,000 are thought to be Muslim Algerians, 33,000 of which were killed in battle, although the true figure continues to be disputed to this day. Would not one think that such a sacrifice to our country that has repeatedly rejected their integration at the least raise debate for how Muslims are perceived in France — much like Abbi thought? Well, what I have noticed in regard to our society’s treatment toward Muslims in these ten years following the conclusion of the Great War has been disheartening.

It has been estimated that at the conclusion of the war in 1918, 200,000 Muslims remained in France, and the government’s handling of this population has been difficult to justify. On the one hand, authorities have created subsidized housing programs, dispensaries, a job placement center and hospital solely for North Africans, which are all great initiatives. However, in the same breath, the government has also introduced an unprecedented social control of these groups in an effort to justify the exploitation of their service in the Great War. To understand this hypocrisy, look no further than André-Pierre Godin, who has served in Paris’ local government for more than fifteen-years now.

Let’s start with his social programs for these North Africans. France’s inhumane treatment of minority populations has been well documented already, and it has been said that Godin’s design for these programs is largely driven by a promise to improve this relationship and ensure loyalty of the North Africans. While this in itself is nothing shocking, the actual implementation of his projects, coupled with some controversial statements, make Godin’s motives seem largely disingenuous. For example, Godin’s statements such as “every benefit to colonial subjects would reinforce French authority overseas” and “treating North Africans in a separate hospital would be less expensive” or even his use of “blanchir,” meaning to make white, in regard to Muslim immigrants, all suggest that Godin had one main goal: to convince the world outside of France of their generosity towards immigrants without triggering the French population’s own anxieties of these groups with “too much” integration.

Well, in examining the reaction of the population to these programs, it seems he has done just that. The idea of a segregated hospital for North Africans gave birth to biological racism that has blamed Muslim immigrants for the transmission of diseases and this notion has been widely supported even by doctors who are expressing this discrimination in medical terms. Moreover, the council’s decision to build the hospital in the barren suburb of Bobigny, far from any public transportation and next to a waste treatment plant, can be seen as a larger representation of how France sees the North Africans in our society: they can be tolerated near us, but certainly not among us. 

Looking back at the social programs Godin introduced in the last decade, the results have been frustrating to say the least. The housing program has provided little relief and all but one of the hostels have failed due to financial mismanagement and just this year, the job placement office has been condemned as the least effective of initiatives. However, the most troubling failure is being recognized right now in the Franco-Muslim hospital. In the three years since its opening, reports describing physical abuse and substandard care are constantly made public. It has been said that Muslims are avoiding this hospital by any means possible and that the majority of patients are arriving in police vans. And on top of all of this, the primary function of this hospital is no longer for protection of North Africans, rather as a tool for surveillance of the Muslim population. This institution is providing amounts of information to the police so great that members of the council are celebrating its ability to “know the community so well that they can track down these North African delinquents at will.”

It is at this point where I ask you, is the best we can offer? Is this the price these Muslims must pay to exist in our country? The same group that so valiantly fought and died on our behalf during the Great War – is this what they deserve? The problem of anxieties towards foreign groups is not just a French one, but one almost every nation has, is, or will experience during its history. However, I hope that the next time you encounter a North African Muslim, you stop and consider that while you may not understand Islam or its culture, you two are not all that different. Think about the thousands of lives, French and Muslim, sacrificed alongside each other in the Great War. Think about Addi and the many others like him who only seek acceptance into our community. Think of all the mistreatment they have experienced, yet the passion still show to prove they belong. These are individuals who love France, they have shown their devotion, and in the event of another crisis towards our well-being, will undoubtedly step up when called to action. Progress is slow and change is not easy, however these Muslims are worthy of our recognition and deserve the same effort from us in accepting them as they have offered to us in demonstrating why we should.