Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

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

April 21, 2017

By Geraldine Gudefin

Editor's note: This blog is the third of three blogs on the subject of laïcité (French secularism). The first was "Mister Prime Minister, Don’t Liberate Us": Secularism and Muslim Women in France" and the second was "French Jews and Muslims on the Move: Is Laïcité Prompting Emigration? Part 1."

Muslims are leaving France for a host of reasons. Some are leaving because of a growing feeling of insecurity; uncertainty about their future and that of their children; and a sense that no matter how educated and "integrated" they are, professional opportunities are scarcer for them than for their non-Muslims compatriots. Educated and ambitious Muslim students and young professionals, for instance, are tempted to seek an education or job abroad, in the United Kingdom, North America and the Gulf states, according to an article by Camille Neveux in Le Journal du Dimanche.

French-Muslim activist Samia Hathroubi described this phenomenon in an article published a few months ago entitled "To stay or to leave: is France really worth it?" Hathroubi wrote about a French Muslim student named Nora, who had traded Ecole Normale Supérieure — one of France's most prestigious schools — for a British university, so that she could "become herself": "France distressed her, and oppressed her. This country could no longer combine its histories, its memories and its plural identities. The harmony was broken. There are days when, lost in my thoughts at a train station or an airport, I, too, think of leaving. Like Nora and others, I dream of new horizons."

Hijab-wearing Muslim women in particular feel acutely anti-religious discriminations. Recent proposals to prohibit the scarf in French universities prompted fear that observant Muslim women may not attend university without violating their religion. But there is more at stake here than religious freedom. Negative perceptions of veiled women affect the types of jobs they can get, and, as a result, their earnings and social standing as well.

For example, Saima Ashraf, a 39-year-old woman who left France for London, told the New York Times a few months ago: "I am a Muslim French woman. I live in London. As a Frenchwoman, I would never have achieved what I have in London while wearing the veil. I am a politician in local government, deputy leader of my borough, and I wear the scarf. If I were in France, forget about it."

Amongst Muslims who are emigrating primarily for religious reasons, some are doing so mostly for "practical" reasons; other for more "ideological" reasons. The latter believe that it is their duty, as Muslims, to live in the land of Islam, regardless of their living conditions in France. (Some within the French Jewish community advance a very similar type of argument in favor of aliyah.)

By contrast, more practically minded individuals do not necessarily ascribe moral value to emigration, but their departure from France reflects the notion that French society is not accommodating their religious practices. Like many of their Jewish counterparts, many French Muslims believe that the current understanding of laïcité hinders their religious practices (such as observance of religious holidays and dietary restrictions, and the wearing of a distinctly religious garb) on a daily basis.

Schools, in particular, are particularly resistant to any form of Muslim religiosity: halal food is universally unavailable at French school cafeterias; female pupils are prohibited from wearing the hijab; and even outside of the classroom, Muslim mothers are often prevented from wearing their headscarf during school trips. There are also many obstacles to religious observance in the workplace, such as difficulties observing the Muslim prayers or taking time off for Muslim holidays.

In some ways, French Muslims face more obstacles to religious practice than French Jews. For example, there are many more private Jewish schools than Muslim ones. Therefore, in contradistinction with Jewish pupils, most Muslim students have no choice but to attend public school. Another significant difference between French Jews and Muslims is the fact that while the French Jewish community is institutionally quite strong and centralized, Muslims in France have struggled to successfully organize (partly due to their ethnic diversity), which has irremediably weakened their demands for religious tolerance.

Particularly attractive to the observant Muslim community of France is the United Kingdom, due to its geographical proximity to France and its reputation as a beacon of multiculturalism. Based on the blogs I have found online, French Muslims started migrating to the United Kingdom in the early 2000s — a phenomenon that seems to have accelerated in recent years. Several British cities, like Leicester and Birmingham, have become home to Salafi communities that observe a rigorist religious lifestyle, such as wearing the niqab (a head covering that conceals the face), a garment prohibited in the French public sphere; gender segregated pools, etc. The United Kingdom is an attractive destination for religiously-motivated Muslim émigrés due to its acceptance of conservative Muslim practices, but also because its Muslim community is more organized and unified than its French counterpart.

In recent years, several blogs have sprouted, providing advice to Muslims, particularly Muslim women, seeking to emigrate from France. Several blogs describe the UK as a religious El Dorado. For instance, on such a blog, Avenue des Soeurs, a French émigré contrasted her life in London with her previous life in France in strikingly uncritical terms: "It's a real breath of air to live here, in a healthy climate where people are living together in harmony. This stands in such stark contrast with France that when I go there, I can't wait to go back home and to leave this heinous and intolerant society. [In the UK] I have discovered polite, respectful, tolerant, welcoming people. By distancing myself from the country in which I was born and grew up, I realize that France always desired that I abandon my identity, my values, my beliefs, and adopt... its way of life and of thinking. The Anglo-Saxons have a different perspective: they value differences, and respect what you are; and everyone lives together in a non-judgmental environment."

A member of “Muslim Moves” hands a recent French émigré the key to his new house in the UK.Immigration to the UK is facilitated by organizations like MuslimMoves, which helps rigorist French Muslims resettle in Leicester. The services it provides are exhaustive, stretching from finding housing and school, providing advice pertaining to insurance, social benefits, visas, and helping new business owners. "Muslim Moves" recommends emigration in order to “practice religion confidently, and without having to justify oneself; ensure that our children are educated in accordance with our Islamic values and without having to hide; and reconnect with a sense of comforting pride in belonging to our Community... "

To return to the question we asked at the beginning of this blog post: To what extent is laïcité (French secularism) prompting members of religious minorities to leave France? There is no doubt that many Muslim and Jewish Frenchwomen and men are leaving France at least in part because they experience laïcité as an obstacle to their religious practices, and a lack of religious pluralism. Jewish and Muslim émigrés alike often describe the social and political climate in France as "anxiety-provoking."

Of course, emigration typically results from a multiplicity of factors, and it is undoubtedly the case that Jewish and Muslim emigration from France is caused by a mixture of religious, social and economic reasons, which deserve further scrutiny. My foray into this complex phenomenon has made me wonder: how many Jews and Muslims have left France in recent years? What ties do émigrés maintain with their home country; and how does the experience of being French abroad shape their identity and relationship to France? How frequent is return migration among these émigrés? What are the gender dynamics at play here? Also, are aliya and hijra really comparable? Finally, if the departure of Jews and Muslims from France were to increase, how would this impact the French Jewish and Muslim communities, and France in general?

This is a crucial question, especially given a vast majority of émigrés in both communities seem to hail from the middle class. While pondering all these questions, I am nevertheless certain of one thing: that France has much to lose by failing to recognize how its religious minorities are affected by a strict model of secularism — some of its vitality, diversity and brainpower.

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