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Forging a voice in ‘France’s high-rise hell’

After last autumn's riots highlighted the problems facing Europe’s largest Muslim population, many French Muslims are stressing pragmatic politics and local issues, not religion, as they try to carve a niche for themselves in the aggressively secular republic.
French youth face riot police in the Paris suburb of Clichy
French youths face riot police in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois on Oct. 29. Unrest that began in Clichy-sous-bois in autumn 2005 quickly spread to heavily-Muslim suburbs across France and raged for more than two weeks.Reuters file
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CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France — In the United States, the word “suburb” may conjure up images of bedroom communities with neat, tree-lined streets and good schools — a haven from the hustle and flow of city life. Not so in France.

This Paris suburb (banlieue), a tinderbox of crime, sky-high youth unemployment and minority disaffection, spectacularly burst into flames last fall as riots gripped hundreds of ghettoes across France. Unrest, though less severe, again plagued Paris suburbs last week.

Among other issues, the fury in the streets among the mostly Muslim youth has underscored the lack of political representation for this growing segment of French society.

The National Intelligence Council estimates that Western Europe's Muslim population, which is now as high as 20 million, will more than double by 2025. Coupled with a graying indigenous population, that would mean the continent's largest population shift in centuries.

France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe at 6 million (out of a population of around 60 million), although precise figures are hard to come by because the state officially does not tally ethnicity or religion. Yet, none of the 555 deputies in the French National Assembly is Muslim.

Making a difference
The stakes are high. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warns that Islamic radicalism could exploit a power vacuum in the Muslim community.

“[I]t is the exhaustion of political Islamism, not its radicalization, that explains much of the violence, and it is the depoliticization of young Muslims ... that ought to be cause for worry,” the group wrote in a report this year.

“Muslim immigrant groups are not participating in French politics,” Robert Malley, the think tank’s Middle East and North African program director, said upon the report's release. “Political frustration is assuming a violent expression, taking the form of jihadi Salafism and riots, and is feeding off precarious social conditions, in terms of employment and housing, social discrimination and the stigmatization of Islam.”

Here in the bleak projects of Clichy-sous-Bois, ten miles from central Paris but a world apart from “the City of Lights,” young people are more likely to wear NBA and NFL jerseys than traditional Islamic garb.

And like other suburbs, only a fraction of the town's 28,000 residents is registered to vote — a fact that Samir Mihi, an Algerian-born youth sports instructor, wants to change.

Activist Samir Mihi in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris. Friday, May 5, 2006, Paris, France. (David Friedman / Friedman

In the wake of the riots, Mihi responded to residents’ queries about how to make a difference by establishing Association Collectif Liberte Egalite Fraternite Ensemble Unis, a nonreligious organization that is traveling to hardscrabble towns across the country to encourage voter registration.

“They said, ‘How can we come and register to vote?’ So the idea actually came from them, not from me,” Mihi, 28, said during an interview in the shadow of the town’s small, stately Hotel de Ville, just steps away from the housing projects that some media outlets have called “France’s high-rise hell.”

The movement was born out of desperation over the paucity of local services for residents of the suburbs. Clichy-sous-Bois, like many other suburbs, is poorly connected to France's otherwise excellent public transport system. The town has just one post office and no bank, Mihi said.

In just the first few weeks of action, Mihi’s efforts registered nearly 1,000 voters in Clichy-sous-Bois alone.

“This is a small community. That’s a lot!” he said.

The fatwa that backfired
Mihi's small successes contrast with the struggles of the country's largest Islamic organization.

As the riots raged last autumn, the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France declared the unrest incompatible with Islam and demanded any Muslims involved in the destruction to stop immediately.

The UOIF was assailed on all sides. The influential head of the Paris mosque — who had his car pelted with stones when he visited a riot-hit town to console residents — said the edict unfairly assumed the riots had a religious, rather than a socioeconomic, hue. The media pointed out the UOIF failed to mention that the riots were in violation of France's laws, never mind Islam's. And, by all accounts, the rioters ignored it.

The incident highlighted the difficulties as Muslims here try to balance religion, class and race to carve out a place for themselves in France's crowded political system.

The UOIF is the dominant voice in the French Council for the Muslim Faith, which was established in 2003 as an interlocutor between Muslims and the French government. The Council's head, however, is the more moderate Dalil Boubakeur, the director of the Algerian government-financed Paris Grand Mosque and an associate of President Jacques Chirac.

Boubaker El Hadj Amor, UOIF treasurer. The 23rd annual convention of French muslims, 23ème Rencontre Annuelle des Musulmans de France, at Le Bourget, Paris.Saturday, May 6, 2006, Paris, France. (David Friedman / Friedman

Ever since its founding, the Council has been plagued by internal rifts and power struggles, as well as charges that it does not reflect the interests of the vast majority of Muslims in France.

UOIF Treasurer Boubaker El Hadj Amor wants to put a moderate face on his organization, which has ties to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational group that calls for the Islamization of society from the grassroots upward.

“This is a fact: most Muslims are moderate and fully accept France,” he said during an interview on the sidelines of the UOIF’s annual conference last month in Le Bourget, outside Paris.

“The issue now is how to live as a Muslim in France without the problems that have come up. The problem is how to live together,” he said.

Immigrant identity
But in the face of the perceived ineffectiveness of the Council, other groups are stepping forward.

While religion remains a powerful identity marker and social cohesive for French-born Muslims of North African and African descent, many groups are choosing to embrace a different identity, one more broadly defined by their “immigrant” experience.

For example, the secular Les Indigenes de la Republique, established last year, is beginning to force its way into the mainstream.

Les Indigenes draws a direct link between France’s colonial history — especially its treatment of the “natives” (“indigenes”) in those countries — and the effective segregation of immigrant populations within France today.

“Basically the treatment of the sons of immigrants, or the sons of those who have been colonized, is … the same (as) how our parents or grandparents have been treated,” said Cherif Bouaoud, 33, an activist with the group.

‘Immigration, integration and alienation’
Indeed, even the term “immigrant” is a misnomer. In France it typically includes French-born citizens of African or Middle Eastern heritage. But France’s concept of “laïcité,” an almost militant secularism, means it eschews any hyphenated labeling of its citizens as, for example, French-Algerians.

“The issues in France are enormously complex,” George Joffe, a fellow at Cambridge University’s Center of International Studies, cautioned. “What at first appears to be a Muslim issue, actually happens to be Algerian or Tunisian or Moroccan and so forth.”

“It has nothing to do with the issues of religion or radical Islam. … The real issues are immigration, integration and alienation,” he said.

Abdelaziz Chaambi, an activist with both Les Indigenes de la Republique and the left-leaning Collectif des Musulmans de France, would agree. The real problem is discrimination in employment, housing and society, he said.

Indigenes de la republique march. Monday, May 8, 2006, Paris, France. (David Friedman / Friedman

"Today in France, we have no problem with our identity, French or Muslim," Chaambi, 48, said.

Marriage of convenience
But despite a growing population and a renewed activism in France, don’t expect a significant shift on the national level, said Olivier Roy, professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris and an expert on political Islam.

“I think … local authorities will have to take into account specific demands of the Muslims because the Muslims will play a role on the local level,” he said.

“They want a cemetery, they want halal meat, things like that,” Roy said. “So, on the local level, yes, the weight of the Muslims will play a role but not in a political shift between left and right or the emergence of a new party, at least not now, not for the foreseeable future.”

Roy, who has also worked as a consultant for the French government, noted some small shifts. For example, a group of young Muslims eager to join the political fray in his own hometown, invited one of the Green Party’s leading figures, Noël Mamère, to an event to announce they were joining his party.

Roy was taken aback initially because Mamère, the mayor of Bègles, is famous in France for being the only politician to have celebrated a gay marriage.

But these Muslim activists did not mind. They were ready to work with the Greens on other issues and would simply set aside the gay marriage issue for now, Roy said. It led him to conclude that this was true integration at work.

Greater Muslim political involvement “will benefit the Greens … because it is the only party that is welcoming to a new constituency, even if they disagree about gay marriage or things like that,” Roy said.

‘Fete de l’Umma’
That is not to discount entirely the role of religion.

The mostly Moroccan leadership of the UOIF remains active in focusing on specifically Islamic issues. It was one of the first groups to protest in favor of Muslim schoolgirls' right to wear headscarves in France's schools and, more recently, played a leading role in the opposition to French newspapers' publication of the Muhammad cartoons.

The French scholar Gilles Keppel has suggested that through actions such as these the UOIF has stayed at the forefront of attempts by Islamist groups to demonstrate that France is now part of the "dar al-Islam" ("house of Islam").

It is a testament to the organization’s influence that the UOIF was able to draw more than 100,000 people — many by the charter busload — to its recent gathering at Le Bourget. It is the largest annual Islamic event in Europe.

Toward a voice
Back in Clichy-sous-Bois, local activist Mihi says his goal merely is to put names on the voter registration lists.

“I don’t have any idea of the impact that we will have,” he said.

“I don’t know which way particular people are going to vote,” Mihi continued. “The only thing we try to say to the young people is, ‘Don’t listen to the polls, because the polls find what they want and they’re often wrong. Just go and vote how you want’.”