The effects of this exclusionary mindset are palpable. France today has Europe’s largest Islamic minority, making up nearly 10 percent of its population. Yet Muslims remain a people apart, as documented in 2011 by a research team recruited by the Open Society Institute. “In France,” one researcher summarized, “you can be of any descent, but if you are a French citizen you cannot be an Arab.” Composite identities like Arab-French are, he added, “ideologically impossible.
Most of the Muslim immigrants come from France’s old colonial empire, and the old colonies that sent the most are the closest ones: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. France has a long history of accepting immigrants from these places, aided by a low birthrate that goes back to the nineteenth century and an authoritarian assimilation mentality. France, for example, had no problem sending its colonial people to the front in World War I, which is why American black soldiers ended up fighting for France.
But North Africans are not Arabs. In the semester that’s about to close, I have had the help of a hijab-wearing Algerian lab assistant, a very pleasant geologist who made it clear that she’s Berber, not Arab. The Arabic language, she explained, came with the religion, but her higher education was conducted in French, a language she is fluent in. We also got to discuss some Islamic science history, and she stated that the Arabs invented the zero, and have been zeroes ever since.
It’s also interesting to note relative to this article that Marseilles, in addition to being the source of the French revolutionary song that became the national anthem, was also the scene of the assassination of Yugoslavian King Alexander I and French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou in 1934.