For 3.5 million French Muslims, Ramadan began on Friday, 20 July. Enthusiasm for fasting seems stronger than ever this year, with 71 per cent of Muslims in France observing Ramadan as opposed to 60 per cent 20 years ago, according to the newspaper La Croix. And fast-breaking iftar dinners, such as the welcome iftar at the Grand Mosque in Paris, are attended by newly elected French politicians eager to demonstrate their commitment to a renewed relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in France following recent elections.
During the last decade in France, however, debates on the role of religion in the public space, migration, social cohesion and other issues have revealed increasing social tensions and polarization in public opinion. Misperceptions and misinformation often dominate public dialogue about relations between French Muslims and their co-citizens. And things became even worse last year when President Sarkozy’s government banned the wearing of face veils in public places, angering many in the Muslim community.
For many, the recent elections seem to offer a change.
Muslims in France are hopeful that the new government will bring positive changes. "With the left [in power], we feel closer to the government and to France in general. And France is closer to Muslims”, said a young Parisian Muslim. “Now, we can focus on more important issues, such as jobs."
There are other promising signs that the situation is changing. On 19 July, President François Hollande met with the Rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dr Dalil Boubakeur. They discussed issues such as the organization of Islam in France, the training of imams and hate crimes against Muslims. And Boubaker paid tribute to the new French president for the climate of serenity and hope established in the country since his election, particularly for Muslims in France.
Two days later, on the second day of Ramadan, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls was invited to break the fast at the Grand Mosque of Paris.
While there is nothing new in French politicians attending official iftars during Ramadan (former President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister François Fillon both did), the 2012 iftar at the Grand Mosque of Paris marks a turning point in French politics toward integrating Muslims into the French Republic.
On 6 July 2012, Minister Valls, inaugurating the Grand Mosque in Cergy, a typical Parisian suburb built in the 1960s, declared: "Islam, in its universal dimension, is an integral element, in its own right, of what France is today. (…) Too often, Islam has been manipulated; too often it has been seen as a vehicle for suspicion, distrust, and contempt. (…) It is our responsibility to progressively build a French Islam, one that will put down roots in our country.'' Blasting former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial integration and immigration policies as “random and discriminatory”, he has called for more objective procedures.
However, more work is needed to repair years of mistrust and misinformation. If France wants to heal the gap between its Muslim population and the government, it is necessary to explicitly reject the link between socio-economic and cultural issues. For instance, it is time to overcome the stereotypes that “Islamisation” is an explanation for unemployment and economic hardship.
It is also imperative for policymakers to change the dominant narrative of French national identity by including Islamic culture and history in discussions of French heritage. Proud of its concept of laïcité (denoting the absence of both religious involvement in government affairs as well as the absence of government involvement in religious affairs), France nevertheless needs to create a notion of citizenship that encompasses diverse layers of identity and belonging.
One of the main strategies will be to use education in order to dispel the assumption that identities are fixed, not only because of the dangerous consequences of that assumption, but because of its historical inaccuracy. The challenge is to reshape imaginations so that Muslims can be seen as legitimate fellow citizens.
(Aude Jehan is a visiting scholar and a French Embassy Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service).