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[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] France, its Muslims, and the Future

Of late, it has frequently been suggested that France--and increasingly, not only France but western Europe as a whole--is heading for a Muslim majority. No longer will France be plausibly described as the "eldest daughter" of the Catholic Church; no longer will Luther’s church have any sway in his homeland; no longer will local Christianities mark the daily lives of people in Spain and Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. Instead of church towers, we will have minarets. Instead of the code napoléon, we will have the shari’a. Instead of women sunning themselves on Mediterranean beaches and same-sex marriage in the Low Countries, we’ll have women forced to wear burqas and gays once again closeted. The past centuries of social liberalization in Europe will be brutally reversed, as Europe enters a new dark age. (But particularly France, since it has too many Muslims to be saved.)

Why? Well, rates of immigration are high enough, but the main factor is the high Muslim birth rate. In the context of a generalized European birth dearth, high fertility rates on the part of Muslim immigrants will inevitably lead to a replacement of the native European population by non-natives. We’ve seen this before, of course, in such sterling examples as the success of the French Canadians in assimilating eastern Canada and New England, the Italian absorption of France and Argentina, the irreversible Russification of the outer republics of the Soviet Union, the ongoing Mexican conquest of California and Texas, et cetera.

First question of the day: Does anyone see a problem with the above historical summary?



The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is the single largest Christian denomination in the United States isn’t often appreciated as the historical wonder that it is. The church is almost entirely a product of the United States' expansion. At first, this reflected territorial expansion into the two-thirds of the United States originally colonized by Catholic France and Spain). Later, this growth was produced by mass immigration--at first Irish and German, then French Canadian, Italian, and any number of central European nationalities, now Latin American and Asian.

The degree of American anti-Catholicism shouldn’t be underestimated. In the colonial era, hostility to Catholic French and its perceived collaborators produced virulent anti-Catholic bigotry--much American opposition to the 1774 Quebec Act was based on hostility to the idea that the French Catholics of British Quebec should have political representation and civil rights. Later, in the 19th century, lurid tales were told--most notably those of Maria Monk--claiming rampant Catholic immorality and claims of an impending Catholic takeover. Differential fertility rates also came into play. And yet, somehow, the Catholic Church in the United States has become thoroughly assimilated, thoroughly accepted by Americans as a legitimate part of the religious landscape.

A question should be asked: Just why is Islam in 21st century France supposed to develop so differently from Catholicism in America? Even if you did accept the thesis--questionable, as I'll demonstrate--that France will shortly accumulate a huge Muslim minority, why should Islam not change over time like American Catholicism? After all, as I've pointed out already, Roman Catholic dogmas have as many problems with modernity as Islamic ones, yet they've changed.

But I digress.





Rafie Boustani and Philippe Fargues’ 1990 The Atlas of the Arab World cites a population of two million Arabs in France circa 1989, reflecting the author’s definition of an Arab as someone connected to an Arab "language and historical conscience" (106). The 1982 French census identifies 796 thousand Arabs as being of Algerian origin, 431 thousand as being of Moroccan origin, 189 thousand as being of Tunisian origin, and another hundred thousand or so coming from another six Arab countries (Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania, Syria). The difference between the two could be explained by a rate of population growth of 3.5% growth per annum between 1982 and 1990.

Figures of eight million French Muslims are regularly tossed around, based, it seems, on panicked fears of high Muslim immigration and a high Muslim birth rate. These figures are vastly overestimated, though. Figures on religious affiliation and ethnic background aren’t kept by the French government, as part of a long-standing reaction against the misuse of those figures by Vichy to deport immigrant Jews to the concentration camps. The suggestions of The Economist that there are a bit over four million French Muslims seem to be more sensible and generally accepted. This amounts to roughly 7% of the French population--a significant number, to be sure, but not an overwhelming majority.

If this minority population grew for the next 50 years at a rate of 2% per annum (a high rate, and one that doesn’t seem to be supported by signs of an ongoing demographic transition), while the remainder of the population shrunk at a rate of 0.5% per annum (also a high rate of decrease, and one that doesn’t seem likely to be achieved for a while given generally high French fertility rates), at the end of this 50 year period the total French population would have shrunk by 9%, and France’s Muslim population would amount to roughly one-fifth of the total. You’d have to wait for a century to approach a position of parity between the two populations, assuming the same unrealistic growth rates. This is definitely not any sort of imminent threat, nor as I shall demonstrate is it a very plausible threat at all.





If a given population is growing, growth can come from two components: an excess of in-migrants over out-migrants; and, an excess of births over deaths. Since the French Muslim community is ultimately of immigrant origins, and since it’s quite possible for a population to continue to grow based purely on immigration (Singapore may be the first society to experience this pattern of demographic growth), we’ll start by examining the first component.

The French Muslim communities now in existence trace their origins to a wave of heavy immigration to France from throughout the western Mediterranean in the twelve years between 1961 and 1973. In the former year, France withdrew from Algeria. More than a million French citizens, Christians and Jews, migrated to France. In the current state of the French economy, such an influx would have vastly increased unemployment. Happily, France was then in the middle of the trente glorieuses, the generation-long economic boom which transformed France into a modern industrial power; if anything, France needed more immigrants. By this time, France had a long history of recruiting immigrants from Spain and Italy, but as those countries industrialized those sources of immigrants dried up. Portugal, at this time stagnating under Salazar’s dictatorship, ended up sending 8% of its population to France. The states of the independent Maghreb, however, particularly Algeria, ended up playing the dominant role in this wave of immigration, sending unskilled labourers to France.

With the oil shock in 1973, rising unemployment, and the first signs of native-immigrant tensions, immigration closed down. Precise numbers aren't available, given the presence of illegal immigration, but François Héran's January 2004 article "Cinq idées reçues sur l'immigration" from INED suggests that over the 1990s France received 65 thousand immigrants a year, including illegals, versus natural increase of 200 thousand people a year. This is a sizable number, but at ~0.1% of the French population its importance should not be overestimated. If all of these immigrants came from Muslim countries, it would boost their populatinos by an additional percent per annum. This, however, isn't happening, simply because people who aren't Muslims--Chinese, Christian Africans, people from the DOM-TOM, eastern Europeans--also immigrate to France.





There is, of course, the fertility differential. It has been noted that the immigrants in question have a higher birthrate than their nominal co-nationals. This isn’t particularly surprising, indeed is part of a general trend towards immigrant conservatism. Immigrants leave their homelands at a relatively early date and are relatively isolated from the social changes taking place there, while the people remaining in the homelands feel relatively more free to innovate. Thus, for instance, the descendants of those Québécois who stayed in Québec live in one of the most secular societies in North America, but the descendants of those Québécois who moved to New England cleave more closely to the Catholic Church, and the descendants of those Québécois who went to Ontario and points elsewhere in Canada fall somewhere in between.

The French Muslim community, after all, is barely more than a generation old. In Tunisia, fertility rates have fallen below the levels needed to sustain the population over the long term; Algeria and Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia, are not much further behind. There isn’t any more reason to assume that French Muslim fertility rates will remain above replacement rate, after all, than there was to expect Western fertility rates to remain above replacement level. If anything, quite conceivably Maghrebin fertility rates could fall far below replacement levels. Societies with a certain minimal level of female autonomy, fairly low living standards, and access to contraceptive technologies can have rather low birth rates despite being generally conservative--look at Romania and Bulgaria, for instance, or Poland and China, or even Italy and Spain. It isn’t difficult to imagine a situation where, one day, the countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean will have a lower fertility rate than the countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. I have already. The impact that this will have, of course, on French Muslim fertility rates can hardly be anything but negative.

Almost two decades ago, Fernand Braudel’s The Identity of France referred to some interesting statistics:

By 1976, the number of immigrants was estimated at 3,700,000 or 7% of the total population. Of this total, Portuguese immigrants accounted for 22%, Algerian for 21%, Spanish for 15%, Italian for 13%, Moroccan for 8%, Tunisian for 4%, Turkish for 1.5%, and black African for 2.3% (figures from the 1975 census). Most of these immigrants were adults, men who had been selected (their mortality rate was well below the French average). The immigrant birth rate was high: immigrants from the three North African countries had an average of 5 to 6 children per woman, Portuguese 3.3, Spanish 2.5, Italian 2. 'On average in 1975, this indicator [the fertility rate] was 3.32 for all immigrants, as against 1.84 for the French and 1.93 for the whole population resident in France.' But once the immigrants have settled in France, their fertility rate, wherever measurement is possible, tends to 'fall in parallel' to the indigenous French fertility rate.

(Michel-Louis Levy, "Les étrangers en France," in Population et société, July-August 1980, no. 137.)


Since 1980, fertility rates for all of these populations have dropped as INSEE confirms (French-language PDF link) in its May 2003 article "La fécondité des étrangères en France : une stabilisation entre 1990 et 1999." The introductory paragraph says it all:

Comme en 1990, les étrangères vivant en France en 1999 ont en moyenne 3 enfants. Les Espagnoles et les Italiennes ont toujours moins d enfants que les Françaises, et les Africaines restent les plus fécondes. Plus l'immigration est ancienne, plus le comportement des étrangères tend à être proche de celui des Françaises. Comme les Françaises, les étrangères deviennent mères plus tard qu auparavant. Le calendrier des naissances des Algériennes et des Marocaines, qui était déjà voisin de celui des Françaises, évolue peu. Celui des Tunisiennes se rapproche de celui des Françaises.


My English translation:

As in 1990, foreigners living in France in 1999 have on average three children. The Spanish and Italians have fewer children than Frenchwoman, and Africans remain the most fertile. The older the immigration, the closer the behaviour of the foreigners is close to that of Frenchwomen. Like the French, the foreigners become mothers later than before. The schedule of births of Algerians and Moroccans, already close to that of Frenchwomen, has changed little. That of Tunisians approaches that of Frenchwomen.


How much further will French Muslim fertility rates descend? If the past century of demographic predictions tell us anything, it's that no one can tell. It is suggestive, though, that in East Asia--a socially conservative but economically prosperous areas--fertility rates have dropped far below replacement levels, below even southern and eastern Europe. A French Muslim population that by 2020 or so doesn’t reproduce itself isn’t going to take over France; a French Muslim population that has the same fertility rate as your average Siberian or Shanghainese is going to be hard-pressed to survive.





Implicit in the act of using this term is the assumption of a (false) homogeneity among French Muslims. If a unified French Muslim minority of four million did exist, marked by a strong and unified group identity, things would be different. This is simply not the case.

For starters, Muslim immigrants to France hardly came from a single cultural background--Algerians might form a plurality, but Moroccans, Tunisians, Turks, and Senegalese (among other national groups) formed large and significant populations in the influx. Maghrebin Muslims hardly share a single homogeneous cultural background, after all. The differences between Arabophones and Berberphones, between different tribal and linguistic groups of both major language communities, between relatively francized Algerians and urbanized Tunisians and rural conservative Moroccans, and between relatively Europeanized and relatively traditional classes and subpopulations, shouldn’t be underestimated by any means. Broadening the focus to include West Africans and Turks certainly doesn’t simplify things. The task of constructing national identities is difficult enough in the Maghrebin sending countries; transferring these identities to their various diasporas would be a challenge even if these separate diasporas were unified entities.

So, in France now, we have four million people of Muslim background, coming from diverse social levels, ethnic backgrounds, political orientations, and religious communities in their homelands, tracing their origins mainly to the states of the Maghreb but including migrants from areas as far separated as the Niger river basin and the Anatolian plateau. What will happen?

What won’t happen is the reproduction of their ancestral cultures. Eugen Weber’s Making Peasants into Frenchmen observed how, in Third Republic France, heavy migration to certain areas--Lorraine, the Nord, Provence--helped break down their traditional cultures, by disrupting the homogeneity that the reproduction of these traditional cultures required and allowing the introduction of a generically "French" culture to act as a koine for these heterogeneous populations. If people form relationships and marry across different lines--clan or tribal, ethnic or linguistic, national or religious--it will be decidedly difficult to reproduce ancestral cultures in the second generation.

French Muslims can, in theory, respond to the erosion of their ancestral cultures by trying to create a self-consciously "French" Muslim culture, trying to counterbalance the need for religious solidarity and respect for tradition with the need to deal with French culture. Indeed, the French government’s promotion of community religious organizations is part of an effort to construct just such a community. Still, building a culture from scratch is always more costly than assimilating into a culture that already exists and pervades your lives, like that of mainstream France.



By all accounts, they respond enthusiastically to opportunities of assimilation. INED’s fascinating statistics on language dynamics in France demonstrate, for instance, that most speakers of Arabic and Berber don’t pass on their languages to their children. The rising generation’s lack of native fluency in languages other than French isn't a bar to communication with the wider Muslim world, given la francophonie and the possibility that Arabic might be learned by these French Muslims as adults. Language, though, is something critically important to the retention of ethnic identity; indeed, Islam places the highest importance on Muslim believers learning Arabic, so that they can understand the sacred texts of Islam. If this language doesn’t make it across the generational divide as a mother language,

Statistics on intermarriage and minority groups generally are difficult to find in France, partly because of the ban on the collection of information on religious affiliation and ethnic background in the French census after the Second World War. The authors of Sixty Million French claim, on page 301, that half of immigrant men marry non-immigrant women, and that one-quarter of immigrant women marry non-immigrant men, for a total intermarriage rate of roughly 40%. This figure is high, and is only a shade below the 60% intermarriage rate for North American Jews that encourages many to doubt the future of North American Jewry. I can’t find specific statistics for French Muslims, but given their prominence in the French immigrant population it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume comparable intermarriage rates.

In the meantime, the status of French Muslim women is particularly interesting. Consider, in the light of substantially greater French Muslim male exogamy, the situation facing French Muslim women, who can respond in only three ways to the deficit of men in their community.


  • French Muslim women remain celibate, and childless.

  • French Muslim women are not involved in stable or permanent relationships with Maghrebin men.

  • French Muslim women in France are marrying non-Muslim men.



None of these options--particularly the last--are compatible with a high rate of endogamy, or with a very successful reproduction of traditional Maghrebin culture in France over the long term. There are strong indications that, in fact, French Muslim women are not interested in assuming the traditionally submissive and subordinate roles of women in the Maghreb. Samira Bellil, for instance, has gained publicity for her writing against a misogynistic culture in the banlieues which uses gang rape as a way to control subordinate women, while Ni Putes, Ni Soumises has come from nowhere to become one of France’s more prominent NGOs. And, in the recent controversy over the French ban on hijabs, one interesting thing that many opponents of the ban passed over was the fact that 49% of French Muslim women supported the ban outright (to say nothing of large majorities of the students themselves). All this represents a fairly radical break with teh gender roles prescribed for women by traditionalists or by neo-traditionalists. Oh, and INSEE reports that one-fifth of Maghrebin women give birth to children outside of wedlock.

Now, for the important question: If a large and growing minority of the current generation of Muslims have partners outside of their religion, give (increasingly more rarely) birth to children with mixed heritages who can opt between a restrictive and restricted ethnic minority culture and a broader and more promising French culture, and if a growing majority of French Muslim women are increasingly criticizing the basic assumptions of their ancestral cultures, how will you get a population capable of seriously challenging the norms of French culture?





I searched for data on religious practice among French Muslims for a while, until I found this article from Islam Online concerning a French report on religious belief among Muslims in France.

Admitting that compared to other believers Muslims are more keen on abiding by their religious teachings, the French experts claimed that only 10 to 20 percent of France's six million Muslims do so.

There are Muslims who drink and others who do not go to mosques, Ternisien said, arguing many members of the Islamic community in France are already "secularized."

According to a study published in 2001 by the French public opinion institute, 70 percent of France's Muslims fast during the holy fasting month of Ramadan but only 30 percent of them perform their prayers.

The study also argued that 70 percent of French Muslims do not go to mosques.


I'm inclined to accept this report as valid, if only because Islam Online isn't a website that's particularly eager to accept secularism or assimilation among Western Muslims. There is a long tradition of immigrants to France rapidly secularizing--Catholics from Spain and Italy, for instance, are reported to have abandoned the religious practices of their homelands relatively quickly.

Michel Gurfinkiel has correctly observed that at 5% each, there are as many Muslims as there are observant Catholics. As he himself accepts, though, only a small minority of French residents of Muslim background are observant Muslims. He does mention how on special holidays attendance increases sharply, as a way of indicating the potential for greater faith. I find it surprising, though, that Gurfinkiel is unaware of the fact that although church attendance increases sharply around Easter, you don't get enduring spikes in Christian piety.





French culture will change, of course. The France of the grand siècle was a collage of widely varying provincial cultures, with a patina of "French" culture to unite the whole. The France of the Third Republic saw the homogenization of these provincial cultures, aided by large inflows of immigrants to produce a radical shift--France was now overwhelmingly Francophone, increasingly urban, increasingly secular. The France of the Fifth Republic seems to have had its major wave of foreign immigration already, though given the continuing poverty of post-Communist southeastern and eastern Europe and migratory pressures from the African continent this judgement might be premature. And so, Fifth Republic France’s major task will be the successful integration of the banlieuesards.

France and French culture will not, however, become substantially more Muslim or Islamic than it already is. Certainly France won’t become an Islamic republic—how can it, when Islamism on the model of Algeria’s FIS/GIA is a minority creed among a small minority? Granted, couscous is apparently a favourite national fast food in France, on par with curries in Britain. That’s a particular accomplishment in a country with a renowned national cuisine. But then, the French ultimately stole their culinary reputation from the Italians anyway.





If this is the situation in France--the European country with the largest Muslim population--what are things like elsewhere in Europe?

Germany has the second-largest Muslim population in the European Union. For Germany, however, the largest immigrant influxes over the 1990s have been of nominal ethnic Germans from central and eastern Europe, refugees from the former Yugoslavia, and Jews from the former Soviet Union. Excluding the highly secularized Muslim refugees of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany’s Muslim population is the product of Turkish (and secondarily, Yugoslav) immigration in the 1960s and early 1970s. Despite Germany’s recent economic problems, it still is an attractive destination for immigrants. Given the recent hostility towards even the moderate amount of immigration to be expected from the new European Union member states, it’s unlikely that very many more well get in. Germany has a Muslim minority, and is trying to adapt to this. A Muslim majority is even further away from realization than in France.

The situations in Spain and Italy aren’t any different. There are some 41 million Spanish and 57 million Italians, and less than one million Muslim immigrants in each country. Given the clandestine nature of this illegal immigration, and the geographic dispersion of their sending countries, the atomization prevailing in France is redoubled in its southern neighbours. Besides, in both countries Muslim immigrants are greatly outnumbered by non-Muslim counterparts, from Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. Expecting Muslim immigrants coming from dozens of different sending countries and to prevail--or even hold their own--against mostly non-Muslim immigrants and national populations which outnumber them by large factors is a bit much.

As for Britain, its immigrant populations come from all over the world. There may be anywhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million Muslims living in Britain, coming from points as dispersed as Malaysia, India, Somalia, and Morocco. But then, there’s also quite a lot of Hindus and Sikhs in the mix from South Asia. Need we forget the sizable volumes of people coming from Christian areas of the world, from the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Europe and even Canada?





Why do people argue that Muslims will be taking over Europe?

Laziness, as always, is a good excuse. People like projecting trends unchanged indefinitely into the future--witness the recent UN prediction that if nothing changed, by 2300 there would be more than 130 trillion humans living on Earth. Taking demographic trends and projecting them indefinitely into the future can be an entertaining past time. As the history of demographic studies has demonstrated time and time again, however, the results aren’t particularly useful as anything but historical articles.

Europeans who use these arguments are particpating in the long-standing fear about being overwhelmed by immigrants. In The Identity of France, for instance, Braudel commented how in the early 20th century, native French were hostile to the then-current crop of immigrants--Belgians, Italians, Spanish, Poles--because of their strong Catholicism and distinctive languages. In Germany and Austria-Hungary, Poles and other Slavs served similarly as threatening spectres to Teutophone areas. Even in the United Kingdom, that European country singularly without much of a pre-Second World War history of immigration, Irish Catholic and eastern European Jewish immigration reliably created national hysterias. In all of these cases, of course, existing ethnolinguistic frontiers remained more or less intact, save where they were altered by wartime population exchanges. The descendants of Slavic immigrants in the Republic of Austria have now become Germanized; the descendants of southern and eastern European immigrants in France have been firmly Gallicized; even the descendants of Hispanophone immigrants in Catalonia have become Catalanized (PDF format).

Americans who use these arguments are motivated mainly by schadenfreude. Are European countries skeptical about the Bush Administration’s foreign policy goals? Could they be interpreted as at least sharing some interests with Muslim countries. We see this in Bat Ye’or, for instance, as she condemns a "Eurabia" created by Muslim immigration which has made Europe suicidally anti-Israeli. ('Suicidally," since anything Israel does is necessary for its defense and ultimately the defense of Europe.) We see this in Little Green Footballs, where nationalistic American posters say that the French will be under shari’a law because these decadent immoral people refuse to have enough children to keep Muslims from inheriting the country. They--sometimes just the French, sometimes the French with the Germans and Belgians, sometimes the entire continent--refuse to support us in our war against Muslims. Accordingly, they will pay the price, and see if we will save them from their short-sighted stupidities this time. Their opposition to our rightful crusade contains their own punishment. FrontPageMag’s treatment of Spain, following the Popular Party’s recent electoral losses, is a classic example.

Darker undertones, of the sexualization of Muslim men as unstoppable aggressors and of European women--that attractive yet feckless lot--as their sexual victims, are also present. It’s quite possible to be hostile to the poor Muslim treatment of women without being hostile to all of Muslim civilization. Still, there is a certain disturbing leer hiding behind many of the comments about the imminent subordination of (Christian, white) Europe’s young women to swarthy Muslim barbarians that makes one wonder just what many of these people actually think. Certainly Little Green Footballs has become spectacularly slimy of late.





Many Muslims enthusiastically welcome the rhetoric of a Muslim takeover, indeed encourage it. Islam Online's coverage of the hijab is a case in point, with this article's conclusion that "the number of Muslims in France will be more than threefold by 2020. Their numbers will reach 20 millions due to the high fertility rate, the high birth rate, continuous immigration into France and adoption by large numbers of French people of Islam, as Muslims of French origin amount to 100,000." As I've pointed out elsewhere, though, that's a straight-line projection that doesn't take the various factors in French Muslim population growth into account.

There does seem to be a belief that French culture--as an example of Western culture generally--is too corrupt to stand up against stern religious faith. Which is an entertaining belief, I suppose, but I find it difficult to believe that is accurate. I've read about this kind of thing before when I wrote my Honours thesis last year. In that case, granted, the groups thinking Canadian culture was corrupt were early 20th century Québécois peasants, Nova Scotian farmers, and mildly deranged hippies, but still. When you see massive and growing assimilation to a majority's culture, as in the case of those three subgroups from my essay or in the case of French Muslims--in terms of language, religious behaviour, gender norms, demographic structures--it's impossible to maintain the community's integrity. People will defect entirely; people will disagree with your goals; people will choose to fold in on themselves.

In short, human beings show an unerring tendency to leave restrictive cultures for more pluralistic ones. Anyone who wants to argue that French Muslims will behave differently--or more ominously, that they should be treated differently--must come up with good reasons why.



France’s problem with its nominally Muslim minority in the early 21st century isn’t a civilizational clash, any more than the United States’ problem with its nominally Catholic minority in the early 20th century was. The French problem isn’t whether or not it will be a Western country, or a democratic country, in a half-century. The French problem is how a large immigrant population, already fairly highly assimilated in the cultural sense but concentrated in certain immigrant ghettoes where assimilation in the socioeconomic sense is more problematic, will be integrated into itself. There’s no particular reason to think it will fail, given France’s own past immigration successes; there’s also no reason for complacency, given France’s problems with youth and immigrant employment, and with social exclusion. It's a touchy situation, but like graduate school it's far more difficult to fail than it is to muddle through and succeed.

There’s certainly no reason for ridiculous fantasies.

Now, on to issues worth real debate, like how to best integrate French Muslims into wider French society.

UPDATE (3:24 am) : Crossposted to Living in Europe.

UPDATE (7 January 2007) : This essay is nearly three years old. Were I to write it today, I'd use more and different sources. If you have suggestions as to corrections and potential data sources relevant to this topic, please post them in the comments. Thanks!





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