Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Part I: French Jews and Muslims on the Move: Is Laïcité Prompting Emigration?

April 13, 2017

By Geraldine Gudefin

Editor's note: This blog is the second of three that will appear on the subject of laïcité (French secularism). The first was "Mister Prime Minister, Don't Liberate Us: Secularism and Muslim Women in France."

In the early 20th century, France witnessed the exodus of 20,000 to 30,000 nuns and friars who had been prohibited by law, in 1904, from teaching. Some headed to neighboring countries; others went as far as China. Does this long-forgotten episode in French history have a contemporary parallel in the expatriation of French Jews and Muslims? To what extent is laïcité (French secularism) prompting members of religious minorities to leave France?

When writing my last blog post for Fresh Ideas, I stumbled across several testimonies of French Muslims who had left France, or were contemplating emigration. As a French Jew, and therefore attuned to the phenomenon of contemporary Jewish emigration from France, I became interested in the topic of Muslim emigration, a little known phenomenon in France. Given the scarcity of news and scholarly research on this topic, my examination of Muslim emigration relies primarily on the French-language Muslim online press and blogosphere.

By now, most French people are familiar with the term "aliyah": Jewish immigration to Israel. The attack on a Jewish grocery store in 2015, and the ensuing wave of Jewish emigration, resulted in multifold articles in the French press, linking aliyah to the sense of danger felt by Jews in France. Prime Minister Manuel Valls himself publicly acknowledged the emigration spike among French Jews when he declared publicly, in February 2015: "My message to the Jews of France is the following: France is injured [by the attacks] and, like you, it does not want your departure... French Jews belong to France ['La place des Français juifs, c’est la France']."

Yet, anti-Semitism is far from the sole or even French Jews’ main reason for leaving their country. In 2016, Cnaan Liphshitz, a journalist for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, ascribed Jewish emigration from France in large part to Jews' "alienation from an adamantly secularist society increasingly intolerant of the religiously devout." In Lipschitz’s words, "for religious Jews, France has become a less welcoming nation in recent years. Confronted by the struggle with radical Islam, the nation’s well-established policy of public secularism has grown even more stringent, with heated debates on pork-free menus in school cafeterias and heightened criticism over municipal funding for Jewish institutions."

For example, one of his interviewees, a man named Rudy Abecassis, explained that he abstained from wearing a yarmulke in the French public sphere, not out of fear, but rather due to his feeling that it would be perceived as "out of place, almost defiant." For many Jews in France, societal pressures to keep the public sphere devoid of religious symbols and practices have been in direct conflict with their religious observance, thereby prompting a minority of them to settle elsewhere, not only in Israel, but also in the United Kingdom and North America.

French Muslims, too, are suffering from a strict reading of laïcité. And French Muslims, too, are leaving France in response to discrimination and anti-religious feelings. The exact number of Muslim expatriates is, to my knowledge, unknown. In stark contrast with the Jewish situation, Muslim emigration from France has received very little attention from the French press, with the exception of a few articles devoted to the phenomenon of "Hijra," a religious term used to describe a Muslim's duty to migrate to a land of Islam.

Articles about Muslim devotees who have immigrated to Muslim countries, such as Morocco, feeds into the notion that French Muslims are religious fanatics. The diverging representations of Muslim emigration, on the one hand, and Jewish emigration, on the other hand, led Fateh Kimouche, a prominent French Muslim blogger who has been described by the French press as religiously "ultra-conservative," to draw a cartoon published in al kanz in 2015.

On the left, the emigration of a Jewish family to Israel prompts an imaginary France to declare: "but no, wait... We are sorry!" On the right image, by contrast, a Muslim family on its way out of France is denounced as "suspect." This visually powerful image conveys the notion that aliyah and hijra are the exact same phenomenon, yet eliciting absolutely opposite reactions from France. The accompanying text further draws on this difference: "In France, many Jews are afraid. They are right. Many Muslims are also afraid. They are right. But whereas the fears of the former are taken seriously, the fears of the latter are scorned by the artisans of the Muslim problem, (...) benevolent anti-Semites who are often more or less uninhibited Islamophobes. Islam and Judaism are in many ways similar. Yet, Muslims are harassed for practices which they intimately share with their cousins, while Jewish practices elicit no such response. What is problematic is not that the Jewish community is not being criticized, but rather that we lash out against Muslims who are observing identical practices."

The cartoon left me uneasy: while I sensed that these images could easily be used against French Jews, I also concurred with Kimouche that the French press treats Jewish and Muslim expatriation in opposite ways. Particularly problematic is the emphasis on religiously-driven emigration, which obscures the fact that a sizable portion of French Muslims are relocating out of France, not because of purely religious reasons, but rather due to the prevalence anti-Muslim discrimination. (Again, this contrasts starkly with reports on alyah, which unavoidably identify antisemitism as one, if not the main, reason for emigration).

French Muslim emigration is highly diverse, thus eluding gross characterizations. French Muslims are leaving their country for social, economic or religious reasons, often a mix of those. Notably, diverse segments of French Muslim society are on the move: students in search of a more open society; young professionals looking for an environment that will acknowledge their qualifications free of discrimination; devout families seeking to observe their religious lifestyle without obstacles, etc. French Muslims, then, are seeking a better future in a variety of countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, the Maghreb, particularly Morocco, according to an article in Al Huffington Post Maghreb and the Arabic Peninsula (United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Qatar). Interestingly some of the cities they are drawn to are also places of immigration for French Jews — London and Montreal for example. In Canada, Montreal is the preferred city of French Muslims of North African origin due its Francophone culture and comparatively affordable cost of living, noted a blog in Muslim on the Road.

According to blogger Fateh Kimouche, "the question is no longer whether one should leave, but where to go: Great-Britain, Canada, Belgium, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Dubai, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia." Writing towards the end of Nicholas Sarkozy's presidency, in 2012, Kimouche claimed that the growing climate of "unbearable Islamophobia" under that government, had prompted many Muslims to reconsider their future outside of France. To demonstrate this, Kimouche had asked the readers of his blog to answer the following question: "Is the current climate of Islamophobia in France encouraging you to leave the country?"

Thirty percent responded "No, but I think about it sometimes" (329 votes); 26% "Yes, I am planning to leave as possible" (285 votes); 23% "Yes, but I do not dare taking the leap" (245 votes) and 21% "No, I am intending to continue living in France" (227 votes). In sum, almost half of the 1,086 individuals who took the poll expressed a desire to leave France. These numbers are difficult to analyze given how little we know about the respondents; however, the very fact that this question figured on a French Muslim conservative website might give us some insights into the mood of at least a small portion of this community.

Significantly, this poll and its accompanying article generated a new cycle of comments last year. These comments appeared four years after the article’s original publication, thereby suggesting that at least some Muslims started doing research about leaving France, presumably after the terrorist attacks of November, 2015. Daoud, from the northern town of Mulhouse wrote in March 2016: "Life is going to become hell for us in France. Let's be realistic: the 'douce France' is over. To be proud of our beliefs or to hug the walls; to stand upright or to abandon our convictions: this is a choice that everyone will make according to one’s principles." Oum Zakariya’s comments echoed those of Daoud: "I do not like France anymore, she who rejects me, who repels me and who always refers to my 'Muslimness' ('islamité'). I am no longer a person, a citizen, a vital spark, a French woman, no, now I am a threat to security, to public order... "

Additional resource

For more on the exodus of friars and nuns from France, see: Patrick Cabanel, "Le grand exil des congrégations enseignantes au début du XXe siècle. L’exemple des Jésuites," Revue d’histoire de l’Église de France 81, n°206 (1995): 207-17; Guy Laperriere, Les Congrégations religieuses. De la France au Québec, 1880-1914, Tome I — Premières bourrasques 1880-1900; tome II — Au plus fort de la tourmente 1901-1914 (Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1996, 1999).

Geraldine GudefinGeraldine Gudefin is a 2016 Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence and a doctoral candidate at Brandeis in the History Department.