Michel Gurfinkiel, the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute and a Ginsburg-Milstein Fellow at Middle East Forum, spoke to participants in a July 6 Middle East Forum webinar about demographic changes in France in relation to her former colonies in Muslim North Africa.
At the time of the French conquest of Algeria in the 1830s, the French population numbered approximately 30 million, the Algerian population around 3 million, and the rest of North Africa between 3 and 4 million. Despite superior French technological and military power, pacifying Algeria required nearly two decades of protracted conflict.
In keeping with its post-revolutionary “universalist vision,” France sought to “turn Algeria [into] an integral part of the French state,” explained Gurfinkiel. In the 1860s, with colonial rule firmly established, Algerian Muslims were offered full-fledged French citizenship provided they accept the French civil code and in effect, renounce Islamic law (sharia). Most refused, seeing this as akin to apostasy.
Nevertheless, the French continued to see Algeria as much a part of the French nation as “Brittany, Burgundy or Provence,” said Gurfinkiel, and allowed immigration by Muslims from Algeria and other French colonies – many of them French-speaking – even after they became independent in the twentieth century. A similar stand was taken regarding the sub-Saharan African colonies.
During this time, the demographic balance between France and its former colonies shifted markedly. Today, there are 67 million citizens in the French Republic (including some French territories overseas), 43 million in Algeria, 35 million in Morocco, and 12 million in Tunisia, along with 233 million in the former colonies of West Africa, Central Africa and the Indian Ocean. Two thirds of the former colonies’ citizens are Muslims.
The vast majority of Muslims who have immigrated to France from former North African colonies “still see France as a country with which they have special ties,” said Gurfinkiel, and many share the view “that France belongs to them … just the way they had belonged to France” in the past.
In contrast to the assimilation typical of most immigrants in most areas of the world, religious observance among second and third generations of Muslim immigrants in France has increased, strengthening the “global collective identity of the Muslim community.” Gurfinkiel noted that 25 years ago less than 30% of French Muslims surveyed said they observed the fast of Ramadan. Today, the number is around 70%.
In addition, Muslims in France have had a substantially higher birthrate than non-Muslims, which Gurfinkiel attributed to three factors. First, strict adherence to Islam enforces family values, in contrast to non-Muslims who embrace a “Western way of life” with less stable marriages and smaller families. Second, France’s welfare state incentivizes families to grow, and the Muslim families avail themselves of these benefits. Third, there is such a “culture of resentment” among the former subjects of French colonies that some aspire to have large families because they see “dispossess[ing] the native French” as “justice.”
Today, Muslims constitute nearly 9% of the population of France, the large majority of whom of North African (Maghrebi) origin. They make up 20% of the population’s younger brackets.
Resistance to this demographic takeover has been slow to materialize. Ideologically, the French were conditioned post-World War II to take a globalist perspective regarding immigration from former colonies. Consequently, national identity reaction has been muted in the mainstream conversation, with concerns about the challenges of immigration mostly voiced by the political right. “A lot of people in France think that it’s already too late” to halt this demographic shift and seek mainly to preserve their own identity as a subgroup in the face of “neo-French … from the former colonies.”
Where this demographic shift and culture clash will lead in 10 to 20 years remains to be seen, but Gurfinkiel expects the trend to continue.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.