France: Jihadism, Islamic Separatism and the Turning of the Tide?

This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.



  • The current French Muslim population is approximately 5.7 million, or 9% of the overall population of France. (Hackett, 2016)
    • That is the highest in Western Europe: Sweden is next with 8.1% of its overall population being Muslim; Belgium is next (7.6%), then the Netherlands (7.1%), Austria (6.9%), UK (6.3%), Germany and Switzerland (6.1%).
    • Despite its low birthrate (1.83 in 2011), France is predicted to become Europe’s most populous country by 2050.
    • Its projected Muslim population percentage in 2050 will be approximately 12.8%. (WPR, 2020)
  • Around 300 Imams per year go to France from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria.
  • France has been the victim of 25 attacks by Muslim terrorists, including 5 in 2015 and 5 in 2020 – the highest in any European country.
    • The two main attacks in 2015 were the Charlie Hebdo attack (17 killed) and the November Paris attack (131 killed)
    • The were the deadliest attacks in France since the 1996 bombing by ‘The Armed Islamic Group’ which killed 170 people.
  • The French Senate voted to ban face-coverings, (Law of 2010-1192) on 14th September 2010.
    • An appeal against the law was taken to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but the ECHR upheld the French law in a ruling of 14th July 2014.
  • France’s colonial Empire was primarily in North and West Africa covering the modern countries of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Chad. It also jointly ruled Egypt with Britain and, following the First World War and the consequential breakup of the Ottoman Empire, controlled modern day Lebanon as well as jointly controlling (with Britain)Palestine, before the creation of Israel.
  • France’s initial attack on North Africa (1830) was defensive in the sense that it was trying to destroy the bases from which the Barbary pirates were operating, taking many European slaves and merchant-ships. Imperial expansionism as desire to spread French Enlightenment came later. (Ageron, 1991)
  • Elections across Europe have brought in more right-leaning, nationally orientated governments: even in Germany, Angela Merkel’s centre-left party has come under pressure with the rise of the AfD, a right-wing nationalist party. (BBC, 2019)
  • European polls have consistently highlighted concerns of European populations about Islamic radicalisation and separatism.
    • For example, the Chatham House European-wide poll which asked whether “further migration from Muslim countries should be stopped” found that an average of 56% of Europeans agreed. (Goodwin, Rains and Cutts, 2017)

Key Quotes
*“You don’t choose one part of France. You choose France … The Republic will never allow any separatist adventure.” (Emmanuel Macron, Quoted in Al-Jazeera, 2020)
*”Freedom in France…[includes] the freedom to believe or not to believe. But this is inseparable from the freedom of expression up to the right to blasphemy…. To be French is to defend the right to make people laugh, to criticise, to mock, to caricature.” (Emmanuel Macron, Quoted in Euronews, 2020)
*”It’s true there is a problem with Islam … and nobody doubts that. There’s a problem with Islam because Islam demands places (of worship), recognition. It’s not that Islam is a problem because it’s a religion that is in itself dangerous but because it wants to assert itself as a religion on the Republic. What might also be a problem is if Muslims don’t criticise acts of radicalisation, if imams behave in an anti-republican way.” (Francois Hollande, Former French President as quoted in Davet and Lhomme, 2016)

There has been a shift taking pace in the rhetoric of France’s President Emmanuel Macron over the six months and it is endemic of what might be described as the slow ‘waking up’ of the liberal political elites in Europe over the past decade. The catalyst for Macron’s statements has been the trial of the Charlie Hebdo attackers. (The attack happened in 2015: 17 people were killed).

The quotations cited in the ‘Key Quotes’ section strongly suggest that French political elites have finally begun to recognise the scale of the problem in relation to separatism and radicalisation that has been developing over decades in France’s (especially Paris’) suburbs. This realisation has been a very long time in coming: as far back as the mid-1990s France was already experiencing terrorist attacks from jihadi-inspired militants. Understandably therefore, the French people have become more vocal in their frustrations about tepid responses to jihadism and Muslim separatism. (France24, 2016) It is this that President Macron and the rest of the French political establishment are recognising and responding to.

In a wider European context, it is clear that immigration, minority separatism and jihadism have been key factors in the broad shift to the political right that has taken place across much of the continent over the past five years (although its rumblings could be heard for at least five years before that). The European-wide poll about the prevention of further Muslim migration to the continent cited in the ‘Data’ section above and published by the Chatham House International Affairs think tank (CH) encapsulates this frustration. (Goodwin, Raines and Cutts 2017) This survey, when taken with the BBC (2019) data also cited above shows that the swing to the political right across the continent has made centrist politicians in Europe realise that, if they are to prevent more nationalistic, even fascist parties from coming into power, doing something concrete about these issues is vital. The depth of the feelings expressed through the CH survey have been seen particularly clearly in France and Germany, the ‘central pillars’ of the EU, where centrist parties have been pushed hard by nationalist parties in both countries in recent elections (the Rassemblement National (‘National Rally’ -the new name for the Front National (FN) in France and Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in Germany).

These statements by President Macron are therefore responding to the nationalist challenge by reasserting what has always been assumed within French political culture (although perhaps ignored in recent years); that to ‘be French’ carries with it specific definitions relating to language, culture and political expressions which are non-negotiable. This definition of ‘French identity’ was investigated for the pluralist era the 1980s when a committee of enquiry was set up to investigate the question of what it meant to be French. The committee took evidence from over one hundred scholars and policymakers. In its report the committee concluded that being French could be defined geographically, culturally and linguistically and that, therefore, those seeking to live in France had an obligation to assimilate to that identity. (Favell, 2001) The findings of that committee have been used ever since when issues of identity and the public manifestation of religion have arisen, such as in the public debates over ‘religious clothing’ and symbols.

Whether President Macron’s words will be enough to halt the rise of the RN is difficult to say, but it is hard to underestimate the impact of the spate of hard-hitting terror attacks in 2015 in the country on French psyche. Especially when it has come on top of the concerns about the growth of Islamic communities in the country and debates about the wearing of ‘religious clothing’. But it is clear that President Macron has seen the need to take a stronger public stance on ‘Islamic issues’ and has chosen the Charlie Hebdo trials as the opportunity to make these statements.

What is important about the French President’s pronouncements in a wider European context is that France has played a central role in European political life going back to the founding of the Carolingian Empire in the 8th Century AD. What happens in France matters to the rest of Europe for France has (not unjustifiably) been considered the home of the Enlightenment which, for modern day European populations, means that any attack on France is a symbolic attack on European culture (and by extension, the West) as a whole. ISIS know this for it is not by accident that France has been the number one target of jihadi-inspired violence in Europe over the past decade. The combination of its symbolic significance and the large (and growing) Muslim presence in France is therefore emblematic of the struggle for European culture going forward.

The words (and actions) of President Macron in seeking powers to clamp down on foreign influence in French Imam training and the teaching of ‘Islamist’ ideology therefore has resonance beyond the borders of France itself. It is symptomatic of a European political elite who have finally understood the depth of the problem that they are dealing with and, perhaps reluctantly, appreciate the need for more stringent action.

Whether those actions will be too late to make a lasting difference to its direction of travel will be the key question for the continent.

Ageron, Charles (1991) Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present London, Hurst and Company.
Al-Jazeera, (2020) ‘Macron decries “Islamic separatism”, defends right to blaspheme.’ 4th September.
BBC, (2019) ‘Europe and right-wing nationalism: A Country by country guide’ 13th November.
Davet, Gerard and Francois Lhomme (2016) A President should not say that: Secrets of Five Years in Office Paris: Edition Stock.
Euronews, (2020) ‘France’s Macron announces “crackdown” on “Islamist” separatism’ 21st February.
Favell, Adrian (2001) Philosophies of Integration and the Idea of Citizenship in France and Britain (Migration, Minorities and Citizenship Series) Basingstoke: Palgrave.
France24, (2016) ‘Unease with the rise of Islam in France and Germany, new poll finds.’ 29th March
Goodwin, Matthew, Thomas Raines and David Cutts (2017) ‘What do Europeans think about Muslim immigration’ 7th February.
Hacket, Conrad (2016) ‘Five facts about the Muslim population in Europe’ 29th November.
WPR (2020) ‘The French Population Projections: 2050’ 16th September.