Constraining Muslim mobilizations in France: Symbolic repression and disqualification as demobilization practices

Julien Talpin, National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

French secular and color-blind political culture has made it difficult for Muslims to organize on the basis of religious identities without being labeled as “communitarian.”, i.e. to be seen as sectarian, self-segregating and divisive for the French Republic. Despite a long tradition of Catholic organizing where the question of “laïcité” or secularism was rarely raised,[1] Muslim organizing is frequently presented as a threat to the French secular model. In this paper I investigate the ways in which local government and the press constrain the mobilization of Muslim groups in France. I focus on the city of Roubaix near the Belgian border where Muslims are numerically over-represented and concentrated. I show that repression and control of collective action takes the form of what I term symbolic disqualification, repressing political action by labeling these actors negatively as “communitarian” or “proselytes”. Symbolic disqualification also has a more material embodiment, limiting the types of financial resources available for organizing to fight discrimination. These subtle and infra-political constraints to collective action have to be understood within a broader history of relationships between the French state and ethno-racial minorities, where the latter have often been co-opted by the local political field, limiting most forms of contention. These different elements explain the relative weakness of Muslim mobilizations against discriminations in the French context.[2]

Content analysis of the press at the national level may help investigate the forms that disqualification of Muslim mobilizations can take.[3] But such methodological approaches only focus on the most visible groups, those who reach national attention, leaving under the radar the more ordinary forms of organizing that are the most widespread in the French context. A few young scholars have carried out research to study such mobilizations at the local level.[4] Few point out, however, the symbolic and material constraints such groups face in their attempts to organize the Muslim population. While the social movement scholarship has emphasized the role of repression in the dynamics of contention,[5] more systematic attention should be paid to the less dramatic and non-violent forms of repression that also shape the possibilities of organizing but often remain under the radar of the social sciences.[6] This is one of the goals of my ethnographic study in Roubaix that focuses more broadly on the transformations of poor people organizing and mobilizations. This research is based on a seven-year ethnographic study, direct observation of collective actions, interviews with key actors (activists, elected officials and public servants), and archival work.

A heterogeneous local Muslim organizational ecology

I cannot offer here a detailed account of the social, demographic, political and religious context in which this research takes place. Similarly, it will be difficult to present in detail the organizational ecology of Muslim associations in the city of Roubaix. It should be stressed, however, that Roubaix has an important Muslim population (hard to evaluate quantitatively, however), most of whom arrived in the 1960s and 1970s after the independence of former French colonies, especially from North Africa. This has led the city to be negatively labeled as “the Casbah” or “an Arabic city” or “the city of the Islamists”.[7] The city is also infamous for having hosted one of the first French Jihadi groups in the 1990s, the Gang of Roubaix, and has often been associated with radical Islam. It nowadays counts six official mosques—with a total capacity of more than 15,000 seats—which is significant in a city of 95,000 residents. One of the mosques gathers Turkish residents. One is affiliated with the Algerian consulate. Another one—the largest—is often labeled as orthodox or ‘Salafi’. Another is, in contrast, close to the Jeunes Musulmans de France and the Musulmans de France, a national organization inspired by the Muslim brotherhood.[8] The others are unaffiliated. The context is marked by a relative fragmentation of Muslim institutions, despite the creation in 2010 of a “Collective of Roubaix Muslims” that has little existence apart from organizing the annual Aïd gathering in a large open space. The collective as well as most mosques’ presidents make little public appearances, rarely reacting to the frequent attacks on the city’s Muslim population.

This might be due to the unique institutional recognition that has known the Muslim faith in Roubaix. In a rare occurrence in 2002, the municipal council voted unanimously, with the exception of the Front National, in support of a “schema directeur des lieux de culte”, i.e. a framework allowing for significant support from the municipal institution for the recognition and development of religious institutions. The 1905 law on laïcité does not allow local governments to finance directly the construction of religious congregations. They can however grant, for a symbolic price of 1 euro, a public space for the construction of a mosque or any religious building. To pass such an ordinance, the municipality had to be highly strategic. While the goal was clearly to allow Muslims to build decent mosques—allowing them to “move out of the basements …”—the ordinance mentions all faith traditions present in the city: Buddhists (who also needed a new pagoda), Christians, and Catholics, whose churches would then be considered as historical patrimony of the city and could therefore be restored with public funding. The mayor’s advisor, who plaid a key role in the passage of the ordinance, explained, “The ordinance was passed somehow in ‘contraband’. It moves away from the question of laïcité, which by its sacred and transcendental nature forbids any real discussion on concrete means, to the question of discrimination, emphasizing the issue of equal treatment but transforming the very concept of equality by introducing special treatments that could be seen as affirmative action.”[9] This official recognition of Islam favored the construction, that is for the most part still on-going, of four new or larger mosques in the city. Absorbed by the exhausting need to find the funds for such projects, as well as the relationships created by this official recognition, the associations running the mosques do not appear as important vectors of local-level participation or engagement for the Muslim population.[10]

On the margins of these religious institutions lay a few associations with a more militant tradition. Three of them, interconnected and made up of the same small group of activists, play an important role in fighting against Islamophobia locally. One is a local radio station, Pastel FM, created in the 1980s, that aims at valuing the diversity of the cultures of Roubaix’s population, and that occasionally organizes shows focusing on Islam, inviting imams or activists. The second is Rencontre et Dialogue, a space of public education programming, offering conferences and meetings around Islam, laïcité, and discrimination. Created in the 1990s, it is well known for its regularly organized conferences with the renowned Swiss Islamologue Tariq Ramadan, once attracting a huge crowd. The founder of the NGO is a member of Presence Musulmane, the collective created by Tariq Ramadan, and one of his close friends (he recently played an important role in coordinating the crowd funding to support his legal defense). Finally, there is the youth organization, Association Nouveau Regard sur la Jeunesse (ANRJ), mostly supporting the professional and educational integration of Roubaix’s teenagers, as well as civic engagement. Indirectly related to Islam, it has, however, been the target of recent attacks by the press and the municipality due to the supposed religious affiliation of some of its members (its founder is also the president of Rencontre et Dialogue).

Symbolic disqualification as a demobilizer of Muslim activists

While these actors have long endured symbolic attacks, I focus here on recent forms of disqualification they have faced. In a recent issue, the local newspaper targeted ANRJ, implicitly accusing it of Muslim proselytism and subtly fostering the ideology of Tariq Ramadan. In an article published on October 10, 2017 titled “The politico-religious mélange des genres of a youth association”, the journalist blamed the ANRJ for organizing a buffet aimed at collecting funds in support of Tariq Ramadan in the framework of a conference he was giving in the region. He also accused the association of collecting food for the poor at the time of Ramadan, as well as inviting members to share lamb with incarcerated youth from the neighborhood. The journalist questioned the legitimacy of such actions and the funding of the association by public institutions. While he did not directly mention the words “laïcité” or “proselytism”, the language of the article implies such. ANRJ did not deny organizing such events, but stressed in a reply shared on social media that they were organized in compliance with the 1905 law, stressing that these events were not aimed at supporting Tariq Ramadan but, rather, to fund a trip organized by the youth members. The association also emphasized that similar events had been organized with other actors, religious and not religious, including with Catholics, to show its open-mindedness. The article has nevertheless had a direct impact. The association was supposed to meet representatives of the State the next day to discuss possible funding, but the meeting was cancelled because of the article. The municipality also decided to cut ANRJ’s funding and refused to grant use of a public space in a municipal building. This contributed to a broader conflict related to the ANRJ’s participation in the mobilization against an urban renewal project planned by the local government.[11] This had a direct impact on the activities of the association, namely, resulting in the firing of one of its staff members due to a lack of funding and, thus, the scaling down of its activities.

A few weeks later, the radio station Pastel FM’s funding from the regional government was cut too, following a charge from the Front National (FN) that it was carrying out “religious proselytism” on air.[12] This attack was based on the fact that imams were regularly invited as guests on some radio shows.[13] The FN elected official noted, “It is the first time that the [right wing president of the Region, Xavier Bertrand] follows one of our proposals,” indicating the growing consensus on the matter among the French political class. The symbolic attacks endured by these associations have therefore resulted in direct financial impact for them, clearly reducing their organizational capacity. An interview conducted with a public servant in charge of funding decisions for associations fighting discrimination in underprivileged neighborhoods (at the Ministère de la Ville and CGET) shows how these mechanisms are underpinned by administrative practices: “There is a risk for me … I am observed very closely by the State, by the delegates of the Prefect, who are not necessarily allies (…) They reproach me financing only Arabs and Blacks, and Islamo-leftists (…) The bottom line is that the delegates of the Prefect do not want to work on this issue [the fight against discrimination].”[14] Muslim activists have not been passive recipients of these attacks, delivering responses via social media, mobilizing their networks for support, and fighting to keep being active on a local level. The number of events organized and the audience size has, however, significantly diminished since the reduction of the funding.

Symbolic frames as crucial determinants of minority mobilizations

While scholars have rightfully emphasized the role of the label “communitarianism” in the disqualification and stigmatization of Muslim and ethnic minority organizing in France,[15] there seems to be an increase in the use and significance of the label “proselytism”.[16] It is particularly fitting as it can be linked, even if misleadingly[17], to the legal framework of the 1905 law on laïcité and, therefore, has more than symbolic effects. While I have focused here on Roubaix, it seems that a similar phenomenon can be observed all over the country. To mention only two recent cases, with the first in Dordogne, the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales decided to cut funding to two social centers—about 300,000 euros annually—that were open late at night during Ramadan.[18] It reproached them for not abiding by the principles of “neutrality and laïcité”. Similarly, but for a more militant association, the feminist group Lallab was denied its application to get “service civiques”, i.e. interns partly paid by the state, following an on-line controversy where they were accused of being “Islamists”.[19] Lallab’s president lost her job following this controversy. More generally, it becomes more and more frequent to require associations to sign a “charte de la laïcité”, as voted on by the Ile-de-France region last year and promoted by the gender equality minister recently.[20] Such initiatives contribute to the diffusion of an extended version of the French 1905 laïcité law, initially created to ensure state neutrality but increasingly applied to society and, therefore, transforming into a weapon to secularize French society. A more systematic survey would be required to assess not only the discursive frames used to disqualify Muslim organizing, but also its material impact and the consequences of such criticisms on the mobilizations of the Muslim population in France. While such attacks may drive attention to the bigger organizations of the field, helping them in recruitment and outreach,[21] for the smaller and more precarious actors such forms of symbolic repression often leads to their weakening or disappearance.[22]  While these demobilization practices cannot be seen as a coordinated effort by the French state, stemming in contrast from various uncoordinated actions among local politicians and institutions, it is clear that Muslim organizing is not welcomed in the French Republic. While many public actors claim the organization of French Islam through the top-down creation of official representatives, such institutionalization should remain restricted to religious affairs rather than to the well-being of French Muslims. Faced with this double bind – that Muslims should have representatives but cannot exist collectively in the public sphere – French Muslims increasingly opt for more personal and individual answers to stigmatization rather than for collective action.

[1] See Duriez (B.), Fouilloux (E.), Pelletier (D.), eds., Les catholiques dans la République, 1905-2005, Paris, Éditions de l’Atelier ; Pagis (J.), « La politisation d’engagements religieux. Retour sur une matrice de l’engagement en mai 68 », Revue Française de science politique, 60 (1), p. 61-89.

[2] See Talpin, F. Frégosi, J. O’Miel (eds.), L’islam et la cité : engagements musulmans dans les quartiers populaires, Lille, Presses du Septentrion, 2017.

[3] See from this perspective  Cinalli (M.), Giugni (M.), “Political opportunities, citizenship models and political claimmaking over Islam”, Ethnicities, 13 (2), 2013, p. 147-16.

[4]Cf. Donnet (C.) « Une mosquée pour exister. Le militantisme de jeunes musulmans strasbourgeois », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 2013, 162 (2), p. 219-234 ; E. Pingaud “Entrepreneurs islamiques et mobilisations de musulmans dans les quartiers populaires » in J. Talpin et al. (dir.), L’islam et la cité, op. cit. ; N. Fuchs, « Nouvelle manière de vivre la foi musulmane et militantisme des descendants d’immigrés nord-africains dans la cité du Val-Fourré », in J. Talpin et al. (dir.), L’islam et la cité, op. cit.

[5] D. Della Porta, H. Reiter (eds.), Policing Protest The Control of Mass Demonstrations in Western Democracies, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

[6] See nevertheless C., Davenport, How Social Movements Die: Repression and Demobilization of the Republic of New Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014; J. Talpin, « Une répression à bas bruit. Comment les élus étouffent les mobilisations dans les quartiers populaires », Métropolitiques, 2016.

[7] For books for helped constructing these stereotypes, see Aziz P., 1996, Le Paradoxe de Roubaix, Paris, Plon ; Guirous L., 2015, Allah est grand, mais la République aussi, Paris, J.-C. Lattès ; for a tentative deconstruction see Noyer J., 2013, « Roubaix à l’écran : images et imaginaires d’une ville », pp. 159-190, in : Noyer J., Paillart I., Raoul B., (eds.), Médias et territoires. L’espace public entre communication et imaginaire territorial, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses universitaires du Septentrion.

[8] See Margot Dazey’s memo on this central organization for French Muslims.

[9] M. David, Mémoire de science politique, Université Lille 2, 2004, p. 134.

[10] For similar elements in another context, see Bowen (J. R.), Can Islam be French? Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010.

[11] In France, community organizations and associations are mostly funded by public institutions (the state and local governments), private foundations representing in general only a small share of their budget. This is related to the specific state/civil society relationship in the French context, where the state keeps a dominant position. In particular, this financial dependency significantly reduces the autonomy of community organizations.

[12] « La région cesse de soutenir Pastel FM, accusée de prosélytisme », Nord Eclair, 17.12.2017.

[13] This per se is not contradictory with the law on laïcité, religious neutrality being only imposed to public servants and state officials. Thus, the main public TV station has organized for decades a show, every sunday morning, to broadcast catholic masses, islamic teachings or other faith traditions.

[14] Interview, Lille, July 22nd 2016. This indicates that the French state is not an homogeneous entity, and is marked by internal tensions between different actors. The public servant quoted here is clearly perceived as an “ally” by muslim associations.

[15] See M. Mohammed, J. Talpin (dir.) Communautarisme ? Paris, PUF, 2018 (forthcoming) ; S. Dufoix, « Nommer l’autre. L’émergence du terme communautarisme dans le débat français », Socio, n°7, 2016, p. 163-186 ; F. Dhume, Communautarisme. Enquête sur une chimère du nationalisme français, Paris, Démopolis.

[16] While the category of “proselytism” is used at least since the 1990s to (dis)qualify women wearing a headscarf, the novelty of the phenomenon described here is the diffusion of this framing process to organizations, including those that do not qualify as muslim per se but only count a significant number of persons seen as muslims among its members.

[17] J. Baubérot, La laïcité falsifiée, Paris, La Découverte, 2012.



[20] See ;

[21] As was the case for Lallab, mentionned earlier, of for the Collectif against Islamophobia in France (CCIF).

[22] On the heterogeneous effects of state repression on social movements mobilizations, see C. Davenport, ” State Repression and Political Order’, Annual Review of Political Science,  Volume 10, p 1-23.