Islam is one of the most important religions in France because of the large number of Muslims, estimated at 3.7 to 5.5 million – an estimate because religious affiliation is not recorded as such in France. In fact, the percentage of Muslims attending mosques is relatively low, like that of churchgoing Catholics. Muslims are well integrated into French society and the French have a positive view of Islam.
In order to facilitate dialogue, the French government encouraged the establishment of the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM – Conseil français du Culte musulman), the French Government’s official interlocutor on Muslim affairs.
Islam is the second-largest religion in France
While Catholicism is the most widely practised religion in France with approximately 30 million churchgoers, Islam is in second place, with 3.7 to 5.5 million Muslims out of metropolitan France’s total population of around 63 million (5 to 9%).
According to the Interior Ministry, France had 1,685 mosques and prayer rooms in 2005 (1,558 in 2003). 13 of these mosques can accommodate over 1,000 people. A further 30 are currently being built.
At the moment, metropolitan France has one Muslim secondary school, a private lycée which opened in Lille in 2003. There is also one collège [11-15 year-olds] in Aubervillier (2001) and one primary school in Marseille. The first French Muslim primary school was established in Saint-Denis on the island of Réunion in 1947.
In each region of France, training is available for imams who are already working. They are given tuition in the French language and information on France’s institutions and her republican framework.
In recent years, French Muslims have gained their own representative bodySince the 1960s, many organizations have been set up in France to represent French Muslims, the main ones being the Union of France’s Islamic Organizations (UOIF – Union des Organisations islamiques de France), National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF – Fédération nationale des Musulmans de France) and National League of French Muslims (FNMF – Ligue nationale des Musulmans de France).
However, faced with the absence of a single, legitimate body to act as their interlocutor, successive French governments endeavoured to encourage the establishment of a representative body of French Muslims, and in 1999 the then Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, launched a “Consultation” with French Muslims with the aim of encouraging its creation.
In 2003, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy created the CFCM, bringing FNMF and UOIF members into a single body. CFCM representatives abide by all the legal principles of the French republic’s fundamental texts, such as articles 10 and 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on freedom of religion, article 1 of the French Constitution affirming the republic’s secular nature, and finally, the provisions of the 1905 Act on the separation of Church and State.
Council members are elected by a general assembly, itself elected by the mosque representatives. This process guarantees the Assembly’s democratic nature and representativeness.
The CFCM has the remit to discuss societal issues, such as the wearing of the headscarf. In addition to acting as a discussion forum, it is responsible, in cooperation with the authorities, for resolving issues such as the building of mosques, organization of religious festivals, training of imams, etc. The CFCM is encouraging integration and normalizing relations with the French public authorities.
The Creation of the French Council for the Muslim Faith has fulfilled the expectations of French Muslims
A 2003 opinion poll showed that for Muslims the establishment of the CFCM signified recognition of Islam’s place in France. Indeed, 81% of respondents thought creation of the Council would allow greater account to be taken of Islam and French Muslims.
Moreover, 80% thought it would improve the image of French Muslims in the eyes of the rest of the population, and 74% that it would resolve the difficulties they face in practising their religion.
78% of those polled think that Islam’s values are compatible with those of the French Republic.
Absence of friction between religions in France today, according to a PEW survey
The PEW Global Attitudes Project survey carried out in spring 2006 revealed a high degree of tolerance in France:
In the West, the French have the most positive opinion of Muslims: 65% (63% in the UK).
France had the highest percentage of people, 74% (35% in the United Kingdom), who think there is no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. She also had the highest percentage of people who think there is no conflict between being a devout Christian and living in a modern society: 86% (70% in the UK).
Of all Western Muslims, those in France have the most favourable opinion of Christians: 91% (71% in the UK)
Over 70% of French Muslims consider that people in Western countries are “respectful to women” (49% in the UK).
Some commentators saw a religious dimension in the disturbances in France in autumn 2005. However, French researchers and sociologists have all stressed that the riots had no religious, political or ethnic character, but stemmed essentially from the difficulties the young people involved had finding a job. The government is endeavouring to address these concerns through measures to improve training and housing and promote economic development.
1 An Act of 1872 prohibits the recording of religious affiliation.
2 IPSOS poll of 3 April 2003 for "Le Figaro" newspaper, carried out on 523 Muslims.
3 Spring 2006 poll (http://pewglobal.org).