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Burqas and Banlieues: disguising France’s integration problems

July 26, 2010

In this life, few things are more banal to me than the discussion about burqas. Even critiques of the burqa craze are beginning to seem passé. With everyone from Oprah to Deepak Chopra weighing in, one wonders what is left to be said and whether it is worth adding to the already-monstrous heap of commentary. Yet Muslims are endlessly challenged to explain the burqa and clarify what they think about it. This is largely thanks to the French government.

In recent years, the burqa (or rather the banning of it) has become a cause célèbre in French politics. President Nicolas Sarkozy famously called it a “sign of debasement” and declared that it “will not be welcome” in the French Republic;1 around the same time, a parliamentary commission was created to study the burqa and produce a report on its use.2 As if the running subtext about immigration and French identity was not clear enough, the burqa has been used as grounds for denial of French citizenship in two highly publicized cases.3 (a, b) French Family Minister Nadine Morano has even suggested that foreigners be required to sign a “no-burqa” contract upon entering France.4 When the aforementioned parliamentary commission released its report, it described the burqa as an “unacceptable” affront to French values and recommended that it be banned from all public institutions.5 Not surprisingly, of the 200 people that the commission heard testimony from, just one was a Muslim woman who veiled her face.6

Going beyond the proposals of the parliamentary report, Prime Minister François Fillon drafted a letter to the French Council of State requesting legal advice on how to enact the “widest and most effective” possible ban on burqas in France,7 and Jean-François Copé, the ruling UMP party’s head in parliament, advanced a draft law targeting the burqa which stipulates that “nobody, in places open to the public or on streets, may wear an outfit or an accessory whose effect is to hide the face”.8 This has all culminated in a 335-1 vote in the French lower house of parliament on a law to ban all face-covering veils in France and impose a fine of up to 150 euros ($190) on women found wearing them, as well as punish any men found to be forcing a woman to cover their face with up to a year in prison and a 15,000 euro ($19,000) fine.9 The French Senate is scheduled to vote on the law in September (2010).

When most people talk about "burqas" in the European context, they're thinking of "niqabs"/"niqaabs". For simplicity's sake, I generally refer to the "burqa" here since the discourse has already been framed using that word.

The buildup to the recent vote neatly dovetailed with a so-called “grand debate” on French national identity launched by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government in November of 2009 and managed by the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity,10 an institution formed by Sarkozy in 2007.11 Family Minister Nadine Morano epitomized the shallowness of the project with her widely criticized remarks about French Muslims needing to “love France when they live here, to find work and not to speak in slang”, reminding them that they also “shouldn’t put their caps on back-to-front”.12 In a statement published in Le Monde in December 2009, Sarkozy himself articulated what many felt to be the true meaning of the “grand debate” – a warning to Muslims that they’d better avoid disturbing French® identity with (as Sarkozy put it) “ostentation” and “provocation”. After calling Muslims his “fellow countrymen” and pledging to combat discrimination, the French President added, “But I also want to tell them that in our country, where Christian civilization has left such a deep trace, where republican values are an integral part of our national identity, everything that could be taken as a challenge to this heritage and its values would condemn to failure the necessary inauguration of a French Islam” [emphasis mine].13

The deliberate framing of Muslim immigration as a challenge to national identity has not gone unnoticed, nor has the impeccable timing of the “debate”, which was designed to finish just prior to France’s regional elections in March (2010).14 In the end, the endeavor – which Immigration and National Identity minister Eric Besson called a “success” – produced proposals including hanging French flags at schools, having school children sing the French national anthem, banning burqas and other face-covering veils in public places, and buffing up the “citizen contract” which newcomers to France are required to sign.15 This entirely symbolic set of prescriptions, as well as the whole premise behind Sarkozy’s project (the idea that France’s integration woes are a matter of “identity” and can be addressed through “debate”) is typical of France’s failing approach to its social problems. The “debate”, which ended up quickly devolving into what some called a “bar-room discussion” that resembled a (U.S.) republican ‘Tea Party’ more than anything else,16 (a, b) was widely rebuked in the French press, with Le Figaro saying it “fell far short of expectations”, L’Echo de la Haute Vienne calling it a “pitiful seminar” and Libération branding it a “fiasco” and comparing its discourse to… a “rabbit fart”.17

In the meantime, several French mosques were vandalized (painted with messages such as “dirty niggers” and “France for the French”),18 (a, b) eight Muslim graves were desecrated,19 and most recently a fight broke out among two French women after one of them was harassed by the other for wearing a niqaab (note that the woman in the niqaab was a convert).20 The French Council of Muslim Faith called for a “national debate” on Islamophobia – an idea that was going to be included in the parliamentary commission’s report on the burqa but was nixed at the last moment.21

Despite having lived in France for generations, Muslims are not considered French by many so-called "French French" people.


Missing the point

In the U.S., this series of events (as well as prior controversies over the Muslim headscarf in French schools during the 1990s) has sustained a seemingly endless stream of news editorials and internet commentary. Despite the large amount of attention garnered, there seems to be something conspicuously absent from the conversation. Between impassioned cries about women’s rights, secularism and the freedom of religious expression, there remains a deafening silence about France itself. If France is mentioned (that is, in any capacity beyond the most pedestrian American fantasies about “Paris”, “French women”, “fine art” or haute couture), it is in the vague context of “French values”, laïcité (French secularism) or the welfare state. Within the debate, it is unclear whether France is a place or simply a political idea.

This, however, is precisely the purpose of the burqa discourse: it conveniently frames the challenge of French Muslim integration as a problem of religious and cultural difference. The discussion then gets deflected into the abstract realms of political philosophy and Qur’anic exegesis, avoiding any exploration of what life is actually like for Muslim women in France.

At every turn, the French Muslim experience is downplayed and obscured. The obstacles to French Muslim integration, symbolized by the burqa, are invariably dissociated from French society and instead ascribed to foreign customs (“Arab/Muslim culture”) or globalized politico-religious movements (“Salafism”). What Sarkozy and his cabinet are loathe to admit is that the very French problems of residential segregation, inequalities in the education system, staggering unemployment and widespread social exclusion represent barriers to Muslim women that are far more opaque than the fabric of any garment. But drifting aimlessly in the world of the symbolic and having lofty “debates” about “what it means to be French” is an ingenious way to avoid the thorny, concrete questions of the structural.

By zeroing in on the burqa, Sarkozy and others have managed to construct a discourse on French Muslim integration that precludes almost any consideration of France itself.

A woman walks through a French cité.


Livin’ just enough… for the cité

France’s first major wave of (mostly) Muslim migration began around 1914 when an auxiliary work force was needed during the war. Algerians (then considered members of France) were given the right to emigrate, and in response a group of impoverished, overwhelmingly male North African laborers (including Moroccans and Tunisians illegally) came in search of jobs, growing in number from 30,000 in 1914 to 250,000 by 1950.22 Their lives – from the moment of arrival by ferry to subsequent settlement in cramped, isolated housing – were marked by racism and segregation (as were their graves).23 In the 1950s and ‘60s, when France required more cheap, uneducated labor for its expanding industrial sector, more North African migrants were ushered in. As it was generally hoped that these workers would only remain in France temporarily, they were abandoned to lives of squalor and segregation similar to those of their predecessors – clustered in decrepit shanty towns called bidonvilles that lined the periphery of the French city.24 (a, b) Many migrant workers later shifted from the bidonvilles to what were called foyers (dismal, isolated dormitories with overcrowded apartments and shared facilities).25

A bidonville in Aubervilliers (near Paris), 1957.

The 1950s also saw the emergence of government subsidized housing projects in France. At the time, these building complexes, called cités, were a considerable improvement from the conditions that workers and their families faced in the inner cities, bidonvilles and foyers. These new suburban apartments were seen as the stepping stone between the discomfort of the city and the dream of home ownership,26 and as such they were hailed as a “sign of progress”.27

This was considered cutting-edge when it was built. The architects, no doubt, never had to live in these hideous boxes.

When economic recession and deindustrialization set in during the 1970s, the factory jobs that had propelled so many French workers into (and then beyond) the cités started to vanish.28 At this point the housing projects became transformed from a symbol of opportunity and mobility to “a trap for working-class families who did not have the financial means to leave”,29 with so-called “white flight” occurring shortly after.30 By 1974, more than 1.2 million immigrants of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian origin were living in France.31 From the mid ‘70s into the ‘80s, many native French families left the cités through the help of a home-buying program sponsored by the French government.32 (a, b)

Gradually France’s subsidized housing estates fell into disrepair. After decades of neglect, their infrastructure began to crumble, as did the prospect of social or economic mobility for remaining residents. As the suburban projects became catch-alls for the most marginalized and excluded of French society (largely but not entirely immigrants and their children), commercial and state services receded and problems of petty crime and poor security compounded.


The banlieue and its baggage

The suburban territories that line the French urban periphery (and contain the cités) are called “banlieues”. The most striking feature of France’s banlieues is not their abysmal design or dilapidated structures, but their deep isolation and separation from both the metropolitan city and each other. Etienne Balibar (2007) compares the banlieue to a South African township because of “the way it tends to reproduce a sort of apartheid in Europe on the level of citizenship that ‘sets apart’ populations of immigrant origin”.33 Paul Silverstein & Chantal Tetreault (2006) argue that France has recreated the “colonial dual cities” it once maintained in North Africa, with residents trapped “in a state of immobile apartheid, at a perpetual distance from urban, bourgeois centers”.34

“RIM’K”, a French hip-hop artist of North African origin, raps about the banlieues:


Banlieue is often used interchangeably with cité and shares the same negative association with crime and immigrants. Although some French suburban districts can be affluent, I use “banlieue” to refer to what it signifies in common parlance – a space of French suburban marginality distinguished by dilapidated housing projects, perceived “lawlessness” and large numbers of North and sub-Saharan African immigrants and their children.35 (a, b, c) By the late 1980s the banlieues had become heavily stigmatized in the French imagination as ominous sources of crime and social disorder; around this time the terms “ghetto” and “cité-ghetto” became popularized as synonyms for banlieue. This coincided with the growing perception of the cité as an “immigrant ghetto” and its identification as the very embodiment of France’s ‘immigrant problems’.36 (a, b)

Inside a banlieue Parisienne.

Sociologists have challenged the banlieue/“ghetto” slippage. Comparing the banlieue with the black American ghetto, Loïc Wacquant (2007) notes that there are some significant similarities: a high (and increasing) concentration of minorities or “ethnically-marked populations” combined with general depopulation, a relatively high proportion young people and single-parent families, spiraling unemployment in the wake of deindustrialization, and a “bleak and oppressive atmosphere” generally resented by residents.37 Wacquant stresses, though, that critical differences in spatial scale, racial and class diversity, the degree of economic and cultural self-containment, and levels of poverty, crime and physical degradation – as well as the political and economic processes that created both spaces – separate the ghetto (a “continent”) and the banlieues (“residential islands”) into leagues of their own, making the term “French Ghetto” a “sociological absurdity”.38

Suburban unemployment and unrest has been a problem in France for decades.


Despite their differences, the banlieue and the ghetto are both marked by what Wacquant (1996) calls “advanced marginality”. Spatially, he explains, areas of advanced marginality are “well-identified, bounded, and increasingly isolated territories” seen by residents and outsiders as “social purgatories” and “urban hellholes where only the refuse of society would accept to dwell”.39 Wacquant adds that it doesn’t matter whether these places actually live up to their reputations; the stigma attached to them develops a life of its own and has very real, negative consequences for inhabitants. As Azouz Begag (2001) explains, this is precisely the case with France’s banlieues:

. . . the poorest dilapidated neighbourhoods have been unbound from the rest of the city and portrayed as unsecured areas. It has been to this point that in French, the word ‘Zone’ or banlieues have become synonymous with areas of acute social disadvantage, unsecured, ethnic ghettos. This type of discrimination often based on a word-of-mouth stigmatisation has largely participated to split the city at a social level between us and they. Widespread media coverage of violent confrontations between police and disillusioned youths has helped to give these banlieues a reputation of lawlessness.40

The concept of “la banlieue” – which from its very inception conveyed the image of a racialized “urban hellhole” (i.e., “immigrant ghetto”) – has been central to the French discourse on immigration since the mid 1980s. Sylvie Tissot (2008) observes that one of its most insidious effects has been to redirect the discussion from socioeconomics to ethnicity. Questions of poverty, unemployment, and educational disparity become “discussed only through territorial categories”, while “the language of socioeconomics … give[s] way to the language of space”.41 Tissot elaborates,

The new paradigm approaches social exclusion through a growing but disguised racialization of discussions of poverty, with territorial categories functioning as euphemized racial categories, as well as through the question of social ties rather than economic hardships.42

Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck.

The ultimate result of the immigrant-problem-banlieue conflation is what Tissot calls “ethnicization”. Instead of illuminating the larger issues of institutionalized racism, economic alienation and social exclusion commonly faced by French immigrants, “la banlieue” presents itself as “a problem posed by immigrants, and more precisely by their supposedly insurmountable cultural and religious differences”.43

What do you think French politicians would rather discuss – burqas, or this:


Because most residents in French public housing are of Maghrebin (Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian), sub-Saharan African and Turkish origins,44 the banlieue becomes seen not only as the materialization of France’s “immigrant problem”, but also its “Muslim problem”. Since the late 1980s, the banlieue has been used to symbolize the failure and even inherent inability of French Muslims to integrate.45

This logic is nothing new. “French” and “Muslim”, we should remember, were mutually exclusive categories in French colonial ideology; as Cécile Laborde (2008) explains, “French citizenship was more accessible to a Pole moving to France than to a Muslim resident of French Algeria”.46 Historian Joan Wallach Scott (2007) calls this the “paradox of the French civilizing mission” (i.e., “that the stated goal was to civilize (to assimilate) those who finally could not be civilized”) – adding that it “continues to this day”.47

This is not a banlieue. It is a French internment camp. You might have confused the two.

If the challenge of “integrating” French Muslims appears to be a throwback to the old colonial paradox (to ‘civilize those unable to be civilized’), it is only because people have made it that way themselves by defining France’s “integration” problem as a question of culture and religion rather than social immobility, housing policy and educational inequality. Discussions of the banlieues themselves can also get transformed into complaints about culture (e.g., “speaking in slang”, wearing hats backwards and the like). Until the real issues are addressed, and people stop framing the discourse on French Muslims as a cosmic clash of religion and secularism, things will only get worse. Perhaps, in time, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even Nicolas Sarkozy occasionally has to acknowledge the bloated elephant in the corner of the room, which he did in 2008 when he rhetorically asked:

How can we talk about a republic when your success at school and in professional life depends not on … merit but largely on your social origin, the neighbourhood where you live, your name or the colour of your skin? 48

Good question.

But I’d bet a thousand francs that you won’t find the answer hidden beneath any burqa.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. ImadK permalink
    July 26, 2010 5:22 pm

    Wow, that was pretty long. It’s been a while since you went elaborate in your posts.

    Excellent post. There was a lot that i found illuminating, you obviously went gung-ho with the research! This sounds a lot like something out of the mouth of Tim Wise, when he talks about white privilege prevailing in the US government and even US society.

    While i do agree with you 100% about the relative irrelevance of the burqa to the integration of the North African immigrants to French society, I was wondering what you thought about the group Ni Putes Ni Soumises and their endorsement of the burqa ban. Truth be told, i don’t know that much about them, mostly because i don’t know that much french, though they seem to be a very decent organisation.

    • July 27, 2010 4:46 am

      Thanks. haha yeah I started writing this some months ago when I had a lot of free time. I tried to include photos and video to break up the text a bit.

      Ni Putes Ni Soumises is an interesting organization. I’m not extremely familiar with them, but it seems they do benefit a fair bit from their implicit condemnation of banlieue (Muslim) men. This is a good article that looks at this aspect of their trajectory to fame:

      Fadela Amara and NPNS also supported the ban on headscarves in French schools in 2003.

  2. July 27, 2010 6:50 am

    asSalaam alaykum wa rahmatullah,

    MashaAllah. Very refreshing and informative look, we need more writing from you barakAllah fiikum. Far too often we get caught up in emotional responses and it is a more thoughtful and academic response that is needed to encapsulate the bigger picture and systemic challenges people are facing outside of a specific issue.

    Again, barakAllah fiikum.

    • July 28, 2010 5:01 pm

      wa alaikum salaam wr wb, Abdullah,

      Thanks so much for your kind comment – and I do certainly agree that it’s all too easy to react emotionally in counterproductive ways to things like this. It’s always a challenge!

  3. mario239303 permalink
    August 4, 2010 11:22 am

    great post – thanks

  4. Melinda permalink
    August 21, 2010 7:43 am

    Great post! I also really liked the interspersed stats.

    • August 21, 2010 9:42 am

      Thanks – I was hoping they’d liven up the text since it got a little detailed in places 🙂

  5. Rosie permalink
    March 29, 2011 3:50 pm

    this is such a good article, really useful as I’m having to write about the banlieues at the moment. Do you mind if cite you as a reference as you’ve got a lot of good sources in there?

  6. May 11, 2011 10:35 pm


    I am Estonian citizen who studies Government and Politics. We are currently going through France politics and your article has given me better view of France’ ongoing issues. Took me about few hours to go through this article and all the references.



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