Expert Commentary

France, Islam, terrorism and the challenges of integration: Research roundup

2015 review of research related to Muslims in France, and the terrorist attacks on the French satirical news outlet Charlie Hebdo and a chemical plant near Lyon.

Sunset view of Paris and Eiffel tower

A Nov. 13, 2015 string of terrorist attacks across Paris that killed 129 people has again raised concerns across French society about jihadist violence and ISIS-inspired domestic terrorism. The tragedy comes in the wake of several other attacks in France in 2015, including an attack on an American-owned chemical factory near Lyon in June 2015 and two in January 2015, when 12 people were murdered at the satirical news outlet Charlie Hebdo and then, days later, four hostages were killed at a kosher supermarket.

Like other European nations, France has a long and complicated relationship with the Muslim world and its own immigrant population, many of whom have been in the country for generations. French Muslims are highly diverse, and some are secular while others are observant. One of the policemen killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Ahmed Merabet, was Muslim. Some are at the center of society — soccer player Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseille to Algerian parents, led France to a World Cup victory in 1998 — but large segments of the population remain excluded. Research from INSEE, France’s national statistical agency, indicates that in 2013, the unemployment rate for all immigrants was approximately 17.3%, nearly 80% higher than the non-immigrant rate of 9.7%, and descendents of immigrants from Africa have a significantly more difficult time finding work. The report found that the education and skill levels only explained 61% of the difference in employment rates between descendents of African immigrants and those whose parents were born in France.

According to a 2012 report from INSEE, approximately 11% of the population was born outside the country, primarily Algeria, Morocco and Portugal. For comparison, 12.9% of the U.S. population was foreign born in 2010, while the figure for Canada was 20.6% in 2011. In 2013 the number of immigrants living in France was 5.8 million. With arrivals and departures, the increase per year is approximately 90,000 (0.14% of France’s population of 66 million in 2013), with most growth in recent years in immigrants from within Europe — Portugal, the U.K., Spain, Italy and Germany. The average education level of immigrants has been rising over time.

By law the French government is prohibited from asking about or keeping data on its citizens’ race and religion. A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center indicates that 7.5% of French residents are of Muslim descent, but does not indicate their degree of religiosity. However, a 2007 Brookings Institution book, Integrating Islam, estimated there were 5 million French residents of Muslim heritage, approximately 7.8% of the country’s population at that time (64.1 million). The authors, Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse, estimate that the rate of self-affiliation of French residents of Muslim descent with Islam was approximately the same as for French people of Catholic heritage with Catholicism, 66%. This would indicate that 3.3 million French residents were to some degree observant Muslims in that year, or 5.1% of the population. Any such figures should be used with great caution, as they’re necessarily imperfect.

Reactions to the attacks

Examining the January 2015 incident may provide clues about the direction of French society in the wake of another attack. Immediately after the Charlie Hebdo killings there were hundreds of spontaneous mass demonstrations across Europe condemning the senseless violence, defending the liberty of the press and urging tolerance. A January 11 march calling for unity brought together over 1.3 million people, including more than 40 present and former heads of state. In May, France passed a wide-reaching surveillance law intended to improve the ability of the country’s intelligence services to identify potential terrorists. While the law was strongly supported by the government, some condemned it as paving the way for mass surveillance on the order of that undertaken by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States.

In general, French society is more tolerant of religious mockery and satire than some other Western nations. Charlie Hebdo’s fierce independence has long attracted admiration and criticism, as does its relentless pursuit of politicians and public figures who abused the public trust. Nothing was sacred, least of all religion: Child abuse by Catholic priests and violence by self-proclaimed protectors of Islam were both considered fair game. After a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, Charlie Hebdo printed them again to demonstrate the importance of the free press in an open society. Their offices were firebombed in 2011 after an issue that was supposedly “guest edited” by Muhammad, and had since regularly received threats of violence.

The gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, died two days later after being surrounded by French security forces. Born in France to Algerian-immigrant parents, their upbringing was not religious but Chérif, the younger, converted to Islam around 2003 and was arrested in 2005 while preparing to join the war in Iraq; Saïd reportedly trained in Yemen in 2011. A 2014 report from the French National Assembly found that as of last July, 899 French residents had been implicated in Islamist networks.

Secularism and security

France is a secular republic, with a strict separation of church and state, as epitomized by a 2004 law that reasserted the right of the government to exclude “conspicuous” religious symbols such as crosses, skullcaps and headscarves from public schools. In 2011 the law was extended to ban the wearing of full-face veils in public places. According to a 2010 Pew report, before the full-veil ban was passed in France there was widespread support for the measure across Western Europe, with 82% of the public in France supporting it. France’s right-wing party, the National Front, has worked to fan fears over Islam, immigration and terrorism — and to conflate them — part of a larger movement of populist political parties that have grown in influence. Nevertheless, 2014 data from Pew indicate that 72% of the French public had favorable views of Muslims.

At the same time, tracking and neutralizing potential terrorists has long been a concern for French security agencies. The country fought a brutal war in Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, and during the subsequent civil war, the conflict often spilled out back home — in 1995 an Islamic group carried out attacks that killed eight people and injured hundreds across the country. Incidents large and small have occurred since then, including the shooting spree by Mohamed Merah in 2012. In December 2014, 10 people suspected of being part of a jihadist network were arrested, and a charity accused of financing terrorism was shut down. Complicating matters is France’s assertive presence in anti-terrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa: Its air force has carried out raids against ISIS, and it leads operations in Mali against Islamist forces.

Free speech in the crosshairs

The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack differed from earlier terrorist events not only in its scale — it’s reportedly the deadliest in France since 1961 — but also its focus on the press and freedom of expression. Organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have pointed out that 2014 was another particularly violent year, with at least 60 journalists killed worldwide (where the motive could be confirmed) and some 18 other cases still under review. The number killed in 2013 was 70, including Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon of Radio France International. Leaders in the journalism community have spoken of a “new war on journalists.” CPJ continues to monitor countries where there appears to be some amount of impunity for these crimes against the press and cases of murder typically go unsolved.

After the attack the French government, Google, and the Guardian donated the equivalent of $1.8 million to help Charlie Hebdo recover. They published their next issue on schedule, with a press run of 7 million copies, nearly 120 times the regular circulation. The edition was published in at least five languages, including Arabic, with distribution in 25 countries. The cover of the “survivors’ edition” featured a caricature of Muhammad with a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, and the first print run reportedly sold out in hours. Some international news sites reproduced the cover, including the Guardian, while others such as the New York Times did not. The public editor of the Times criticized the publication’s decision.

Below is a selection of relevant research on France’s immigrant-origin communities, terrorism coverage in France and related issues.


“Developing Terrorism Coverage: Variances in News Framing of the January 2015 attacks in Paris and Borno”
Nevalskya, Eric Chien. Critical Studies on Terrorism, November 2015. doi: 10.1080/17539153.2015.1096656.

Abstract: “Written news coverage of an event influences public perception and understanding of that event. Through agenda setting and news framing, journalists control the importance and substance of readers’ beliefs about the event. While existing research has been conducted on the relationship between media coverage and the geographic location of the country an event took place in, there is limited understanding of this relationship in terms of terrorist events. Utilizing an agenda-setting theory and news framing theory lens to compare news coverage of the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and Borno, Nigeria revealed significant variances in the overall coverage, headline style and discourse usage based on the event. In particular, the American news coverage positively framed France through detailed, sympathetic coverage and negatively framed Nigeria by overgeneralizing and placing blame. Determining the origin and impacts of these variances is integral to forming a more comprehensive understanding of international terrorism and the most effective ways to combat it.”


“Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting”
Hegghammer, Thomas. American Political Science Review, February 2013, 107(1), 1-15. doi: 10.1017/S0003055412000615.

Findings: “This article studies variation in conflict theater choice by Western jihadists in an effort to understand their motivations. Some militants attack at home, whereas others join insurgencies abroad, but few scholars have asked why they make these different choices. Using open-source data, I estimate recruit supply for each theater, foreign fighter return rates, and returnee impact on domestic terrorist activity. The tentative data indicate that jihadists prefer foreign fighting, but a minority attacks at home after being radicalized, most often through foreign fighting or contact with a veteran. Most foreign fighters do not return for domestic operations, but those who do return are more effective operatives than nonveterans. The findings have implications for our understanding of the motivations of jihadists, for assessments of the terrorist threat posed by foreign fighters, and for counterterrorism policy.”


“Identifying Barriers to Muslim Integration in France”
Adida, Claire L.; Laitin, David D.; Valfort, Marie-Anne. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 2010, Vol. 107, No. 52, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015550107.

Abstract: “Is there a Muslim disadvantage in economic integration for second-generation immigrants to Europe? Previous research has failed to isolate the effect that religion may have on an immigrant family’s labor market opportunities because other factors, such as country of origin or race, confound the result. This paper uses a correspondence test in the French labor market to identify and measure this religious effect. The results confirm that in the French labor market, anti-Muslim discrimination exists: a Muslim candidate is 2.5 times less likely to receive a job interview callback than is his or her Christian counterpart. A high-n survey reveals, consistent with expectations from the correspondence test, that second-generation Muslim households in France have lower income compared with matched Christian households. The paper thereby contributes to both substantive debates on the Muslim experience in Europe and methodological debates on how to measure discrimination. Following the National Academy of Sciences’ 2001 recommendations on combining a variety of methodologies and applying them to real-world situations, this research identifies, measures, and infers consequences of discrimination based on religious affiliation, controlling for potentially confounding factors, such as race and country of origin.”


“‘One Muslim Is Enough!’ Evidence from a Field Experiment in France”
Adida, Claire L.; Laitin, David D.; Valfort, Marie-Anne. Discussion Paper series, 2011, Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit/Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), No. 6122.

Abstract: “Anti-Muslim prejudice is widespread in Western countries. Yet, Muslims are expected to constitute a growing share of the total population in Western countries over the next decades. This paper predicts that this demographic trend will increase anti-Muslim prejudice. Relying on experimental games and a formal model, we show that the generosity of rooted French toward Muslims is significantly decreased with the increase of Muslims in their midst, and demonstrate that these results are driven by the activation of rooted French taste-based discrimination against Muslims when Muslim number s increase. Our findings call for solutions to anti-Muslim prejudice in the West.”


The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism
Fernando, Mayanthi L. Duke University Press, 2014.

Description: “In 1989 three Muslim schoolgirls from a Paris suburb refused to remove their Islamic headscarves in class. The headscarf crisis signaled an Islamic revival among the children of North African immigrants; it also ignited an ongoing debate about the place of Muslims within the secular nation-state. Based on ten years of ethnographic research, The Republic Unsettled alternates between an analysis of Muslim French religiosity and the contradictions of French secularism that this emergent religiosity precipitated. Mayanthi L. Fernando explores how Muslim French draw on both Islamic and secular-republican traditions to create novel modes of ethical and political life, reconfiguring those traditions to imagine a new future for France. She also examines how the political discourses, institutions, and laws that constitute French secularism regulate Islam, transforming the Islamic tradition and what it means to be Muslim. Fernando traces how long-standing tensions within secularism and republican citizenship are displaced onto France’s Muslims, who, as a result, are rendered illegitimate as political citizens and moral subjects. She argues, ultimately, that the Muslim question is as much about secularism as it is about Islam.”


“Opposing Muslims and the Muslim Headscarf in Western Europe”
Helbling, Marc. European Sociological Review, 2014, pp. 1-16. doi: 10.1093/esr/jct038

Abstract: “While Muslims have a surprisingly good reputation in Western Europe, the wearing of the headscarf in schools is opposed by a large majority of people. Several arguments are developed in this article to explain why people make a distinction between Muslims as a group and legislation on their religious practices. While attitudes towards Muslims vary little across countries, there is a lot of variation in levels of opposition to the headscarf. It appears that the more state and church are separated in a country or the more a state discriminates against religious groups the more opposed people are to allowing new religious practices in schools. At the individual level this article will test the extent to which general xenophobic attitudes, liberal values, and religiosity help us understand why attitudes differ. The article will show, among other things, that religious people are opposed to Muslims but not the rules that allow them to practice their religion. On the other hand, people with liberal values are tolerant of Muslims as a group but feel torn when it comes to legislation on religious practices such as the wearing of the headscarf, which for some people stands for the illiberal values of Islam. Data from a survey in six Western European countries will be analyzed. Despite all the heated political debates this is one of the first studies that analyses attitudes towards Muslim immigrants across a number of countries, and for the first time attitudes towards Muslims as a group and legislation on the headscarf are compared.”


“Widespread Support for Banning Full Islamic Veil in Western Europe”
The Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 2010.

Excerpt: “A survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, conducted April 7 to May 8 [2010], finds that the French public overwhelmingly endorses this measure; 82% approve of a ban on Muslim women wearing full veils in public, including schools, hospitals and government offices, while just 17% disapprove…. Majorities in Germany (71%), Britain (62%) and Spain (59%) would also support a similar ban in their own countries. In contrast, most Americans would oppose such a measure; 65% say they would disapprove of a ban on Muslim women wearing full veils in public places compared with 28% who say they would approve.”


“Migrating Concepts: Immigrant Integration and the Regulation of Religious Dress in France and Canada”
Lépinard, Eléonore. Ethnicities, April 2014. doi: 10.1177/1468796814529939.

Abstract: “Religion in general, and Islam in particular, has become one of the main focal points of policy-making and constitutional politics in many Western liberal states. This article proposes to examine the legal and political dynamics behind new regulations targeting individual religious practices of Muslims. Although one could presuppose that church-state relations or the understanding of secularism is the main factor accounting for either accommodation or prohibition of Muslim religious practices, I make the case that the policy frame used to conceptualize the integration of immigrants in each national context is a more significant influence on how a liberal state approaches the legal regulation of individual practices such as veiling. However, this influence must be assessed carefully since it may have different effects on the different institutional actors in charge of regulating religion, such as the Courts and the legislature. To assess these hypotheses I compare two countries, France and Canada, which are solid examples of two contrasting national policy frames for the integration of immigrants. “


“Surveying the Landscape of Integration: Muslim Immigrants in the United Kingdom and France”
Jacobson, David; Deckard, Natalie Delia. Democracy and Security, May 2014, Vol. 10, Issue 2. doi: 10.1080/17419166.2014.908283.

Abstract: “This research explores how the beliefs of Muslim immigrants living in France compare to those of their counterparts in the United Kingdom. We conducted a survey of 400 Muslims in each nation and noted significant differences between them. We found that British Muslims felt less positively about the West and its influence in the Muslim world than did French Muslims. British Muslims were more likely to prioritize loyalty to the Ummah and to perceive hostility toward Islam. The findings are suggestive of a disparity in the immigrant experience in the two nations, as well as in the effectiveness of their government integration strategies.”


“Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West”
Gallup World report, 2012.

Excerpt: “Gallup collected data in 2008 from representative samples in Germany, France, and the U.K., focusing on several issues related to the social and cultural integration of Muslim communities in these three countries. And while majorities of the adults in these countries agree that people from minority groups enrich the cultural life of their nations, sizable minorities of these respondents express fear about certain aspects of Muslim culture. Only the general population in the U.K. includes a sizable minority — more than one-quarter — that says people with different religious practices than theirs threaten respondents’ way of life. The Muslim populations in France, Germany, and the U.K. are less likely than the general public in these countries to say those with differing religious practices threaten their way of life. Between 16% and 21% of people in France, Germany and the U.K. say they would not like Muslims as their neighbors, similar to the percentages of each country’s general population that say they would not like homosexuals as neighbors. Generally, people in these countries are more likely to say they would not like Muslims as neighbors than they are to say the same about Jews, Christians, atheists, blacks, and Asians. An exception exists in the U.K., though, where 22% of people say they would not like immigrants or foreign workers as neighbors…. Overall, however, large majorities of French (90%), British (90%) and German (95%) respondents say they have not experienced racial or religious discrimination in the past year. Among Muslims in each of these three countries, those in France and Germany are significantly more likely than the general population to say they experienced discrimination in the past year.”


“European Converts to Islam: Mechanisms of Radicalization”
Karagiannisa, Emmanuel. Politics, Religion & Ideology, 2012, Volume 13, Issue 1, doi: 10.1080/21567689.2012.659495.

Abstract: “While European converts to Islam represent only a tiny percentage of Europe’s Muslim population, members of that group have participated in major Islamist terrorist plots and attacks on European soil. Although the radicalization process has not been the same for all individuals, it could be still possible to understand the circumstances under which some European converts turned to violence. Therefore, the article focuses on a number of mechanisms that may have contributed to the radicalization of European jihadi converts, including personal victimization, political grievance, the slippery-slope effect, the power of love and the inspirational preaching.”



Keywords: Islam, terrorism, religion, news framing, Amedy Coulibaly, Cherif Kouachi, Said Kouachi, Lassana Bathily, #jesuischarlie, #jesuisahmed, research roundup

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