May 4th, 2012
02:56 PM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
Clichy-sous-Bois, France (CNN) - There's no doubt in university student Ouissem Satouri's mind about who he is. He’s Muslim. And he’s French. And there’s no contradiction between the two.
“I’m sitting here with you in a French cafe, wearing French clothes and having a French book in my bag, and I'm never asking myself if I am French or not,” says Satouri, who’s studying politics in Paris. “I am speaking French, I am living in France, I am dreaming in French, I want to live in France. I am French. But I am Muslim also.”
“You don't have to ask yourself if you are Muslim or French,” he says. “You don't have to take a position.”
Though France is home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, the question of whether someone could be both has surfaced here recently, ahead of a cliffhanger presidential election on Sunday. Many French politicians refer to Muslims as “immigrants” even though many, like Satouri, are the French-born kids of immigrants.
The far-right National Front party captured a record share of the vote in the first round of the election last month. The head of the party, Marine Le Pen, has been making a political issue of halal meat. Factor in a burqa ban imposed last year and negative media coverage sparked by the recent killings in Tolouse by a French Muslim and many Muslims here are feeling increasingly alienated from mainstream French society.
Though Le Pen didn’t make it to the second round because she didn’t finish in the top two, center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy has reached out to her supporters with “anti-immigrant” rhetoric, as he fights to hold onto his job in the face of a strong challenge from Socialist Francois Hollande.
“We feel that we are excluded from this debate, that we are stigmatized,” says Satouri, whose parents were born in Tunisia. “And it's a big problem for us today. It's a bad climate. You can do nothing with a climate like that.”
Many of the country’s estimated 4.7 million Muslims are finding it hard to integrate, says Louisa Zanoun, a historian of immigration.
“I'm thinking of young men,” she says. “It’s difficult to find work, employment, they're not easily trusted.”
“It affects them in their day-to-day lives, with the police for instance,” Zanoun says. “It's about the perception that French society and the authorities have of those people - that they are unable to integrate, that their religion is a barrier. It's all about the values of the republic.”
For the past century, the French state has aggressively insisted on secularism in the public sphere. What began as an effort to break the Catholic Church’s grip on the nation is seen by many Muslims today as an effort to stifle their religion.
Zanoun thinks the current atmosphere is a corruption of what the French Republic was founded for.
“Originally, it was supposed to be inclusive,” she says. “It was about including all the people who believed in the values of the Republic. Nowadays, it's very exclusive because to belong to the Republic, you have to give up your religion. You have to give up your culture. Now some immigrants are not prepared to do that. And why should they?”
The heated political climate of a presidential election is only making matters worse, says Zanoun, herself the child of Muslim immigrants from Algeria. In the first round of the election, nearly one out of five voters backed the National Front's Le Pen.
“I would say that for the majority of Muslims, they feel maybe a bit more ostracized and especially with what happened at the election in the first round,” Zanoun says, calling the Le Pen support “very frightening.”
A half-hour’s drive from the center of Paris, in the largely poor suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, Muslim community activist Samir Mihi expresses little surprise that the far right did so well in the first round of voting.
“In a time of crisis, you look for a scapegoat,” he says with a mix of resignation and frustration. “The scapegoat is the foreigners, so of course the National Front wins votes in these conditions.”
Many French people do feel the country is in crisis. Unemployment is hovering around 10%, and the European currency, the euro, has been battered by government debt problems across the continent.
On top of that, the nation was shocked by the deadly shooting rampage in Toulouse earlier this year. Over the course of 10 days, a gunman shot dead three soldiers, all of North African heritage, and a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school.
Police identified the killer as Mohamed Merah, a young man born in France to Algerian parents, and killed him after a siege of his apartment lasting about 32 hours.
In the wake of the killings, France deported a number of people the government called Islamic radicals.
Mihi is critical of the way many officials talked about the killings, and the way they talk about Muslims and immigrants in general. “Most people who talk about Islam don’t know this religion. All they see is what’s in the media around the world with terrorism,” he says. “That’s what makes a lot of people afraid and think that Islam and the Republic aren’t compatible with each other.”
Like Ouissem Satouri, he rejects the dichotomy: “For me it’s not a conflict at all. You can be religious and respect the laws of the republic.”
Mihi got involved in community activism after riots erupted in his suburb in 2005, as residents went on the rampage after two young Muslim men died in an electric power station, apparently hiding from police. One of the men was a neighbor of Mihi’s.
Seven years later, the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois still feels like it could be a thousand miles from Paris, instead of a few dozen. Almost all women wear headscarves on the street. Old men sit outside cafes on a weekday afternoon while young men sit on railings or lean out of apartment windows and curse at people who drive by.
Mihi says there have been some changes for the better in Clichy-sous-Bois since the riots – a new police commissioner, new housing. But some things remain the same.
“The problem is that the things that haven’t changed yet are about the people who live here,” he says. “They’re changing the habitats, but not giving them work. It’s nice to live in a new apartment but if you don’t have work, you’re still in the same condition.”
Mihi was born in Algeria, but came to France with his family when he was a year old. He doesn’t consider himself an immigrant. He says he’s French. He’s voting on Sunday, but says that neither Sarkozy nor Hollande has done anything to reach out to him as a Muslim or a Frenchman. He’s planning to cast a blank ballot.
But he will go to a polling station to hand in the blank sheet, and expresses shock at the question of why he is bothering to vote at all. “Because it is my right!” he exclaims, every inch the Frenchman.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.